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It’s Important Not to Look Away from the News Deserts Problem
It threatens to further deepen the fissures between us.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
There are two big trends in local news in America these days, one positive and one negative.
The old-line metro newspapers mostly continue to decline, with the elimination of seven day print publication by more than 125 Gannett papers and the 30%+ declines in print circulation over the last two years just the most recent important examples. And before you get excessively encouraged by recent growth in digital subscriptions, do the math: the average Gannett paper (among 250) and the average Lee paper (of 77) each now has only about 6000 digital subs.
On the other hand, new entrants are emerging, some of them quite promising.
Both of these trends are playing out in our major cities. I want this week to ask a troubling question, to which I confess up front that I am unsure of the answer: What will happen to local news elsewhere, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, and particularly in places where people don’t tend to have as much money?
Much of the attention on this question has been framed as the spreading of what my former Wall Street Journal colleague, Penny Abernathy, denominated “news deserts.” Her work in this area has been pioneering, and eye-opening. What is being lost in news deserts was also wonderfully illustrated late last year by the Washington Post Magazine.
Can these deserts can be reclaimed?
I look at the problem this way: For-profit general news organizations of less than enormous scale (and therefore almost all local digital outlets) will increasingly be dependent almost entirely on reader revenue—advertising revenues for them are vanishing as the platform ad oligopoly rolls along. Within the realm of reader revenue, paywalls are not a widely available option—they require high-quality content in high quantity, and while high quality is being achieved in many places, almost none have the resources to achieve it regularly. That leaves the nonprofit donor/member model, which is the one adopted by most of the new entrants, and it is the area of the greatest progress right now.
But what about communities of less particular interest to donors, and with fewer potential contributing members?
There is the hope that a sufficiently rising tide will lift even these outlying boats. That could happen through a combination of robust local efforts such as those about to launch in Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston, and those already underway from The City in New York to the Texas Tribune to WBEZ/Sun Times in Chicago, and with growing national and local funding for local efforts from ProPublica, the Marshall Project, Chalkbeat and others. It’s conceivable.
A select group of local organizations in tougher markets, like Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia and Mississippi Today and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (all of which I have tried to help myself) are encouraging, but they remain the exceptions.
We need to be honest in acknowledging that, even as nonprofit initiatives are expanding at an accelerating pace, a great deal more liquidity will be required before the tide rises high enough everywhere. So there is a scenario—in the medium term perhaps a likelihood—that many of the poorer, more sparsely populated parts of our country face an especially bleak news picture. For them, advertising won’t be enough, readers and local donors lack resources, and help from the national philanthropic cavalry may not arrive, at least yet. Even the principal current efforts at government funding, which would shore up existing news organizations, aren’t designed to step in where the desert has already spread.
Why it should matter to all of us
That would be concerning enough for its own sake, as a recent New Yorker piece made clear, but it’s even more worrying when we acknowledge that such an outcome would almost certainly deepen fissures in our society, fissures between poor and rich, between the better and less well educated, between those of opposing political beliefs.
This is the point in this column where you might expect me to offer a prescription, and I’d love to be able to do that. But right now, and for at least the years just ahead, I don’t yet have one. As suggested above, I hope the new metro efforts, or at least many of them, succeed. And I believe that there must and will be more national philanthropic support for local journalism, as the need—and the stakes—become ever clearer. That’s not going to be enough, however, at least for awhile.
To turn the title of Nikki Usher’s important book “News for the Rich, White, and Blue” a bit on its head, the problem of local news for the poor, rural and parched is the hardest nut at the heart of our news problems today. It’s important, at the very least I think, to keep it in mind.
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