The 2022 Report
This is a nation increasingly divided journalistically, between those who live and work in communities where there is an abundance of local news and those who don’t. Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain either print or digital news organizations.
The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.
This is a crisis for our democracy and our society. Troubled by the potential consequences, journalists, policymakers, philanthropists, industry executives, scholars and concerned citizens have stepped up efforts to save local news. Philanthropic donors, as well as venture capitalists, are funding more journalistic endeavors. Government officials are considering new regulations and public subsidies to address the issue. And many newspapers and digital organizations are adapting and finding success, especially in larger markets or affluent communities, where there are more funding options.
Timely interventions—backed by a combination of for-profit, nonprofit and public dollars—averted the demise of many news organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, the decline in local newspapers continued, while digital alternatives, once seen as the savior, remain nonexistent in most communities that have lost a newspaper. Commercial broadcast and public media have not been able to fill the void.
Understanding what is working and where there are still gaps in the flow of reliable and timely news and information helps individuals and organizations devise solutions to rebuild and sustain local journalism in those communities that, so far, have been overlooked by entrepreneurs and potential funders. This is very much an industry in transition, with much at stake. There is an urgent need to not only arrest the continuing decline in local newspapers, but also revive local journalism in those communities without it.
An earlier report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication examined the challenges confronting local journalism in democracies around the world. This Medill Local News Initiative report documents the state of local news in this country, post-COVID-19, focusing on the health of both local newspapers and digital sites. Here are some of the key findings:
Newspapers are continuing to vanish at a rapid rate. An average of more than two a week are disappearing. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025. Even though the pandemic was not the catastrophic “extinction-level event” some feared, the country lost more than 360 newspapers between the waning pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022. All but 24 of those papers were weeklies, serving communities ranging in size from a few hundred people to tens of thousands. Most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a digital or print replacement. The country has 6,377 surviving papers: 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies.
Digital alternatives remain scarce, despite an increase in corporate and philanthropic funding. Over the past two years, the number of new digital-only state and local news sites, 64, slightly exceeded the number of sites that went dark. In 2022, there are 545 digital-only state and local sites; most employ six or fewer full-time reporters. Each state has at least one digital-only outlet. However, even established local digital news organizations often fail to attract the monthly traffic of television and local newspaper sites, somewhat diminishing the impact of the stories they produce. Four out of ten local sites are now nonprofit, supported by a combination of grants, sponsorship and donations. But whether nonprofit or for-profit, the vast majority of those sites are located in larger cities, leaving much of the rest of the country uncovered.
More than a fifth of the nation’s citizens live in news deserts—with very limited access to local news—or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Seventy million people live in the 210 counties without a newspaper, or in the 1,560 counties with only one paper—usually a weekly—covering multiple communities spread over a vast area. Increasingly, affluent suburban communities are losing their only newspapers as large chains merge underperforming weeklies or shutter them entirely. However, most communities that lose newspapers and do not have an alternative source of local news are poorer, older and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service that allows residents to access the important and relevant journalism being produced by the country’s surviving newspapers and digital sites. Instead, they get their local news—what little there is—mostly from the social media apps on their mobile phones.
The surviving newspapers—especially the dailies—have cut staff and circulation significantly as print revenues and profits evaporated. This has sharply reduced their ability to provide news to communities that lose a weekly newspaper, further exacerbating an information gap not only in rural areas, but also in suburbs surrounding a city. Since 2005, when newspaper revenues topped $50 billion, overall newspaper employment has dropped 70 percent as revenues declined to $20 billion. Newsroom employment has declined by almost 60 percent, with on-staff photographers declining by 80 percent. Only employees in production and distribution and advertising sales fared worse on a percentage basis than journalists. Accountants and operational managers, charged with making sure expenses did not exceed revenue as profits plummeted, had the most job security.
The largest chains control the fate of many of the nation’s surviving newspapers. Their business strategies and decisions continue to shape the local news landscape. Recent research has shown that, even in their diminished state, newspapers still provide most of the news that feeds our democracy at the state and local level. So, who owns the country’s newspapers has a profound impact on the abundance—or absence—of local news. As the number of newspapers has declined, consolidation has increased. The largest chains—most of which are either owned by or indebted to hedge funds, private equity groups or other investment firms—have been the most aggressive in buying and selling newspapers and in shuttering unprofitable ones when they cannot find a buyer. Even after selling and shuttering 120 newspapers over the past two years, Gannett, the country’s largest chain, still owns 494 papers in 42 states. The largest 10 chains own more than half of all dailies, including some of the country’s largest and most prestigious. The largest 25 chains own a third of all newspapers, including 70 percent of all dailies. Less than a third of the nation’s 5,147 weeklies and only 10 of the 100 largest circulation dailies remain independent.
There is a new—often overlooked—media baron on the scene, aggressively buying dailies and weeklies in small and mid-sized markets. While recent headlines have focused on the strategic maneuverings of the largest chains—Gannett, Lee, Tribune and Alden, which own most of the newspapers in the country’s largest markets—privately owned regional chains have snapped up dozens of newspapers shed by the mega-chains, as well as smaller family-owned enterprises. Two-thirds of the 82 papers Gannett sold in the past two years were snapped up by two regional chains, CherryRoad Media and Paxton. Six of the 10 largest owners in 2022 are regional chains, with between 50 and 142 papers in their growing empire. Three of the largest regional chains did not exist a decade ago, while the other three have been family-operated for generations. Since 2020, the most acquisitive have been: the New Jersey-based CherryRoad Media, founded in 2020, which owns 63 papers in 10 Midwestern states; the 125-year-old, Kentucky-based Paxton Media which owns 115 newspapers in 10 Southern and Midwestern states; and the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers, founded in 1890, which owns 101 papers in 18 states stretching from New Hampshire to Hawaii.