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Nearly a third of the U.S. newspapers that ceased publication in the last 15 years were based in rural communities, a new study finds.
The comprehensive study of newspaper coverage in the United States found that 516 rural newspapers closed or merged from 2004 to 2018. In metropolitan areas, 1,294 newspapers were shuttered during the period, making a national total of 1,810 papers that ceased publication.
The report, released last week by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism, says approximately 7,100 weeklies and dailies remain in print, but the closures are creating “news deserts” – communities that lack a local source of information about civic life and culture.
Most of the papers that closed were weeklies. In some cases, they were the only nongovernmental link between local government and residents, researchers say.
Other publications have pared down their news operations in such a way that their coverage is minimal, becoming “ghost newspapers,” as researchers call them, mere wisps of their former selves.
“Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities,” the report says. “Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”
The study says that counties with no local news publication face special civic challenges as a result. But an official with one small town that lost its paper 10 years ago said they’ve made do, with the government itself playing are larger role in communication.
The Sudan (Texas) Beacon News, with a circulation of about 300, closed a decade ago, says Sudan City Clerk Gwenna Gore. Since then, the coverage of the 954-person community has been shifted to nearby Lamb County Leader News, a twice weekly publication out of Littlefield, Texas, the Lamb County seat.
“They actually have a Sudan section,” Gore says. “Mostly all the news here is school news.”
Gore says the city communicates directly with its residents – sometimes making flyers and going door-to-door to post notices. The city also uses automatic calling features to notify citizens in case of emergency. But for the most part, notices of meetings and events are posted in the town’s bank, or in business storefronts.
“Honestly, there hasn’t been any complaint that I’ve heard about there not being a paper,” she says. “It’s a small town. If there’s anything that goes on, people know about it.”
City Secretary Mechele Edwards says that while the loss of the newspaper was a blow, the town has adapted, using email, messaging and other means to let people know what government is doing.
“Obviously, it’s devastating when a small town loses anything, including a paper,” Edwards says. “We’d much rather have a small-town newspaper. But in this day and time, we have a little more options to reach people than we used to.”
Communication tools – both old and new – may help governments reach residents with important information. But the UNC report says newspapers do much more than provide meeting notices. “Newspapers have been variously described as watchdogs that hold our civic institutions accountable and ‘furnish that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide,’” quoting Harold Grumhaus, former publisher of the Chicago Tribune.
The study found that 1,400 U.S. counties have only one newspaper. Two-thirds of U.S. counties lack a daily newspaper, and 171 counties have no newspaper whatsoever.
News coverage is also declining in areas where newspapers remain in print, according to the report. Many state and regional newspapers have pulled back coverage to their core metropolitan markets, abandoning rural and outlying suburban areas.
The city of Zebulon, North Carolina (population 5,000), makes do with less news these days, according to a city official. Located in the state’s second largest metropolitan area, Zebulon’s local news appears in the town’s own weekly, the Zebulon Times, and the daily News & Observer of Raleigh, located in the same county. Nevertheless, the change in coverage patterns is still palpable, says the officials.
“While we do have coverage with The News & Observer, we are one in 12 coverage areas for them and some of the stuff in our community struggles to get covered,” says Joe Moore. “The Zebulon Times brings a hyper-local focus to our town that our residents appreciate.”
The town is a growing area that is transitioning from agriculture to residential, Moore says. But its citizens continue to be engaged in the community and to clamor for news about the town’s business and its citizens, he says.
“I don’t think there is a struggle there for things to cover,” he says of the Zebulon Times. “Because we’re a growing community, the growth is driving interest in government function and government accountability. But the community is also interested in human interest stories — we’re a small community and a lot of people want to know what is going on with their neighbors.”
On the other side of the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area is Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a thriving university town of 59,000 residents. The town has a highly educated populace and a median family income 50 percent greater than the national average. But it no longer has a local paper. The Chapel Hill News (owned by McClatchy) was converted into a twice weekly advertising publication in 2017 before ceasing publication altogether. The daily papers in Durham and Raleigh (also owned by McClatchy) no longer have bureaus in Chapel Hill or surrounding Orange County.
“Chapel Hill has not lost all media coverage, although it has diminished with the loss of The Chapel Hill News,” says Catherine Lazorko, the town of Chapel Hill’s communications manager. The Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, is the last newspaper remaining in town. But its focus is the university, not local government.
Like Sudan, Texas, Chapel Hill has tried to find new ways to communicate with their residents, Lazorko says. Reaching out to neighborhood associations and homeowners’ associations, as well as emailing residents with weekly news digests, has become the new way for local government administrators to communicate with residents.
“Most importantly, we are working to enliven our messages with videos and photos,” says Lazorko, according to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. “Our news should be ready for public consumption as we cannot rely on journalists to translate ‘governmentese’ and convert news releases into interesting stories. In addition to sending information, we need to be listening and responding to create true community engagement.”
The vacuum in local news has created opportunities for the partisan press to step in, sometimes in the guise of local news.
According to a Politico report in April 2018, online news sites purporting to be local journalism, but offering content more along the lines of the conservative Breitbart website, are popping up in news desert areas.
In Tennessee, where only 19 of the state’s 95 counties have more than one newspaper and three have none at all, websites like “The Tennessee Star” are gaining a following. While the website appears to be a traditional newspaper, its stories tend to be biased toward conservative reporting, aiming to influence elections by projecting its spin on coverage vacated by collapsed local newspapers.
According to Politico, the Star began in February 2017 and is part of a growing trend of “opaque, locally focused, ideological outlets, dressed up as traditional newspapers. From the Arizona Monitor to the Maine Examiner, sites with names and layouts designed to echo those of nonpartisan publications — and with varying levels of credibility — have emerged across the country, aimed at influencing local politics by stepping into the coverage void left by the collapsing finances of local newspapers.”
Owned by Steve Gill, a conservative commentator and radio host, and Michael Patrick Leahy, a local political activist who also writes for Breitbart, the Star looks like a newspaper website.
“What we really did is provide something people are just starving for,” Gill told Politico. “We’re serving a vastly underserved demand in Tennessee. I think there are probably other states where a version of the Tennessee Star could do very well.”
Gill and Leahy have also registered americandailystar.com, minnesotanorthernlight.com, mosundaily.com, newenglandstar.com, thedakotastar.com, themichiganstar.com, thencstar.com, theohiostar.com, thepennstar.com, thevirginiastar.com and thewisconsinstar.com.
But Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, says the website could be confusing to readers.
“In general, when people try to adopt the forms of journalism without the norms of journalism, we really do have to be concerned that they’re trying to put one over on people,” Culver told Politico. “It makes it very hard for citizens. It makes it very hard to navigate this information environment and find credible sources that you can rely on.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly misnamed Littlefield, Texas, and Littleton, Texas.