Revitalizing America's News Deserts: The devastating loss of local news outlets is a crisis for democracy. We can still fix it.

AuthorPickard, Victor

Throughout the country, local journalism is being defunded and dismantled. A recent report by Northwestern University's Medill Local News Initiative shows that the newspaper industry--still the primary source of original reporting for our entire news media system--has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers and almost 60 percent of its newsroom employees since 2005. More than one-fifth of the U.S. population--approximately 70 million Americans--now live in an area with little or no access to local news.

We've come to call these media wastelands "news deserts," though this metaphor can be misleading. People living in such areas still consume copious amounts of media--from unsubstantiated rumors swirling in Facebook groups to sensationalized fluff aired by cable news networks. Worse still, all manner of disinformation and conspiracy-peddling are rushing into the vacuum created by the collapse of local journalism, including rightwing propaganda operations made to look like authentic news reporting--so-called pink-slime journalism.

Meanwhile, the cuts to actual journalism are relentless. Gannett, the country's largest newspaper publisher, recendy executed yet another round of downsizing, laying off 3 percent of its workforce. The only for-profit entities that remain interested in buying newspapers are private-equity firms and hedge funds like Alden Global Capital. These vulture capitalists swoop in to shred what is left of distressed newspapers, liquidating jobs and selling off the real estate for financial spoils.

Why is this happening? Even now, much confusion persists about what is driving the local journalism crisis. Throughout most of the twentieth century, local newspapers were one of the few ways for advertisers to reach audiences. Many local newspapers formed a monopoly or duopoly over advertising space in their geographic area and were thus able to charge advertisers inflated rates. As readers moved online and advertisers could better target them, newspaper publishers lost their monopoly position. Digital ads yield pennies to the dollar compared to traditional print ads, and most of that revenue goes to Facebook (Meta) and Google.

For well over a decade, market diehards have doggedly searched for new business models and technological fixes for sustaining journalism in the digital age, but no commercial formula has emerged to replace the 125-year-old dominant advertising revenue model. The problem is that this business model is...

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