Rural communities are hit especially hard by the loss of local newspapers, a study from 2022 found. Now, a new model for a newsroom emerges that could be a viable solution to the growing problem.
The State of Local News 2022 report, released by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, found that two newspapers close down every week on average, with around 2,500 having closed since 2005. The report also found that more than half of communities that lost papers were in suburban or rural places that were losing population.
Many of these local newspapers closed after they were bought by private equity firms or hedge funds. Alden Global Capital, Lee Enterprises, and Gannett are the nation’s largest newspaper chains, owning close to 800 papers collectively. Professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism Dan Kennedy said these entities often target financially vulnerable local newspapers, consolidating multiple papers into one to cut costs and increase revenue.
“Even though in many cases they are losing money or making very little money they’re still pulling in a fairly decent amount of revenue,” Kennedy said. “So if the hedge fund comes in, what they can do is just start slashing the news content, and you lower your expenses and your revenue stays more or less the same, at least for a while until the subscribers and the advertisers catch on and start fleeing.”
These buyouts leave newsrooms without the resources they need to report on local news. Staff positions get cut and newsrooms cut back their coverage until they eventually close, the report said. For rural communities in particular, these closures leave them with few to no reliable sources covering local issues.
Several alternative business models have popped up as a way to combat news deserts, most notably nonprofit newsrooms, the report said. These news outlets are largely funded by donations from individuals or philanthropies, unlike their for-profit counterparts that mostly depend on advertising. Kennedy said one major advantage of nonprofit papers is that they cannot be bought and consolidated like for-profit newspapers can.
“Nonprofits have a completely different structure,” he said. “They’re set up for the benefit of the public, and you can’t buy them out. They’re essentially owned by the community.”
After Alden Global closed down the Monterey County Herald in California, nonprofit news site Voices of Monterey Bay broke an ongoing corruption scandal within the Salinas City Council.
“Our little publication finally reported that one city council member was also part of the Chamber of Commerce,” founder and staff writer Julie Reynolds said. “And so there was a huge conflict of interest when different issues came up before the city council that would benefit the chamber. And so the Chamber finally fired him, but it took our little tiny nonprofit publication to report that because it wasn’t being covered in the media that is still there, but it’s only there as a shell.”
The report found that nonprofit news outlets tend to be located in well-off urban areas, where funding from philanthropies, subscribers, and advertisers is easier to come by. With a population of over 400,000 and affluent communities like Pebble Beach, Monterey County can support a nonprofit like Voices of Monterey Bay. Rural areas are much less likely to have the infrastructure or resources to sustain these operations. Newsrooms that do spring up in rural areas are also more likely to be overlooked by advertisers and foundations, the report said.