On Sept. 30, 2019, the Waycross Journal-Herald published a particularly newsworthy obituary: its own. Under the banner headline “Stop The Presses,” the 105-year-old publication, which billed itself as South Georgia’s Greatest Newspaper, reported that the day’s edition would be its last.
With the announcement, the Journal-Herald joined the ranks of the more than 2,100 newspapers that have closed in the United States since 2004.
This growing dearth of local news outlets is leading researchers to call the places that have lost papers “news deserts,” and academic studies are finding a correlation between less local news and decreased civic participation in those places.
The Pew Research Center has been watching these trends. It recently reported that in 2018, the last year for which cumulative data were available, overall newspaper circulation in the U.S. shrank 8 percent and industry revenues dropped 13 percent—continuing a spiral that began in the mid-2000s. The center also calculated that between 2004 and 2018, newspaper newsroom employment dropped by almost half—47 percent. And the coronavirus has exacerbated the concerns, with The New York Times reporting in March that smaller local papers were laying off staff and reducing print editions because of the loss of advertising as businesses closed during the pandemic.
As stark as those statistics are, one other finding from the Pew Research Center was notable: A center survey found last year that 71 percent of Americans said they believed their local news organizations were doing well financially.
“That’s pretty striking,” says Amy Mitchell, who leads journalism research at the center. “And it really speaks to quite a gap in awareness among the public—and a challenge for the industry.”
If many Americans aren’t aware of the financial challenges their local news organizations face, residents of hundreds of communities are nonetheless seeing their local papers disappear—with those that remain working with vastly diminished resources.
“The newspaper has historically been the prime source of information on everything from what’s happening at the town council meetings to who’s running for office to something as mundane as deciding how to spend your money wisely when you see an ad for a sale at a local store,” says Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina. “Newspapers have provided most of the news that built communities.”
A flip through yellowing binders of old papers shows the range and depth of more than a century of daily editions of the Journal-Herald as it chronicled life in Waycross. Nevertheless, the end came quickly there: The staff was told on a Friday afternoon that the following Monday would be the paper’s last day. The news spread around Waycross as it often does in a small town—by word of mouth and, in this modern day, a few Facebook postings.
Local businessman Dave Callaway remembers not believing it at first, as if it were a rumor that a reporter hadn’t checked out for accuracy.
“It was definitely a shock,” he says. “You sort of take it for granted, like drinking coffee every morning. What happened if all the coffee dried up? What are you going to drink?”
Gary Griffin, who is 69, spent his entire career at the Journal-Herald, starting off as a sports writer and ending up managing editor.
“We would have tour groups come through. And I would tell them, your hometown newspaper mirrors your life. We’re here to tell your life story,” he recalls. “What’s the first big thing that happened? You were born. Your parents likely, back then, trotted down to the Journal-Herald to place a birth announcement. Then you get a little older and you hit a home run in a Little League baseball game, and your name gets in the paper.”
And then, he continues, come “the engagement announcement, the wedding write-up. Then you have your own little bundle of joy. And you’re putting a birth announcement in. Then what’s the last big thing? The obituary. That’s the main drawing card of a small hometown newspaper, as far as readership.”
The daily newspaper’s last sports editor has taken over the Journal-Herald name and launched a weekly version in October, but Griffin notes that with a weekly publication schedule it’s possible for a local resident to die and be buried with some folks not learning the news in time to go to the funeral.
And he says there are other unknowables about happenings in Waycross now that the paper is weekly. Less than six weeks after the daily paper shuttered, the question of whether to continue a special local sales tax was voted down in a low-turnout election. The city and surrounding Ware County would have used the $47 million from the tax for public safety needs, road resurfacing, parks, and other infrastructure projects.
Griffin says in earlier elections, the paper would not take a stand on its editorial page on whether the tax should be passed, but the news pages would detail the proposals, and stories would serve as a reminder to voters to go to the polls. And previously, the tax had passed easily. But the last story about the tax extension in the new weekly version of the paper came out six days before Election Day. Only 14 percent of registered voters ended up casting a ballot.
The daily Journal-Herald would have informed people about the tax question, says Larry Purdom, a reporter at the paper, a local historian, and a high school classmate of Griffin’s. “It would have explained the situation, where the money was going to go,” he says. “And without that, nobody knew.”
Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina is the author of a report called “The Expanding News Desert,” which documented the 2,100 papers that have closed and explored the consequences for their communities. The report cites a 2011 finding from the Federal Communications Commission that said that newspapers are the best medium to provide the public service journalism that shines a light on the major issues confronting communities—and gives residents the information they need to solve their problems.
“But, in many communities today, there is simply not enough digital or print revenue to pay for the public service journalism that local newspapers have historically provided,” the report said. “Therefore, the fate of communities and the vitality of local news—whether delivered over the internet, the airwaves, or in print—are intrinsically linked.”
Traditionally, newspapers have relied on advertising to supply 85 percent of their operating costs. And Abernathy says that between 2000 and 2010, print advertising revenues dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s. The transition to digital online sites has been quick but has not produced nearly the needed resources. Abernathy says about 75 percent of all digital revenue has gone to Facebook and Google, leaving newspapers, television stations, and digital startups to divvy up what’s left.
And the Pew Research Center’s latest analysis says only 14 percent of Americans reported paying for local news, such as by subscribing to a paper, in the last year.
Television remains the first choice for most Americans for local news, according to the center’s surveys. But TV usually doesn’t cover the small-town community news that is being left behind in many places. The nearest television station for Waycross’ nearly 14,000 residents is in Jacksonville, Florida, more than 75 miles away.
And the local news that is being produced isn’t feeling very local for many people these days. Staff cutbacks at newspapers mean the local papers that remain are sometimes filled with stories from surrounding places to help fill the coverage gaps. Readers and viewers notice that, says Pew’s Amy Mitchell.
“About half of our respondents say that the bulk of their local news covers an area outside where they live,” she says. “And people that were more likely to say that coverage was focusing on other areas were those that lived in more rural segments of the country.”
There are now 200 counties in the U.S. with no formal news organization covering the local government and community events, according to Abernathy. She says the residents of the areas left behind are often poorer, older, and less educated than other places. “As a result,” she says, “you can say that the economically struggling communities are the very communities that need those kinds of critical information tidbits that help them craft a new future.”
Instead, Mitchell says that the very concept of what news is for many Americans is changing. About 30 percent of people told Pew that they now get news from what she calls “second tier” sources such as small online sites, local government agencies, and local organizations such as schools and churches rather than traditional newspapers with professional reporters and editors.
“The role that your friends and others now play in passing things on, and the new kind of structure in how you might get those, whether it’s in your social media thread or news alerts that are popping up on your phone—it’s just a very different experience than what we had, say, three or four decades ago,” Mitchell says.
So, increasingly, researchers are turning their attention to what this new approach to news means for a community’s civic life.
Analysis by business professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame studied the cost of localities borrowing money, such as bond issues for large building projects, and found that counties that had lost newspapers ended up paying higher interest rates than similar counties that still had a local paper.
“Our evidence indicates that a lack of local newspaper coverage has serious financial consequences for local governments and that alternative news sources are not necessarily filling the gaps,” one of the Illinois professors, Dermot Murphy, wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review.
The study also found that government inefficiencies increased. County employee wages increased, and so did the number of employees. “More tax dollars flow to government positions after a newspaper ceases to monitor government activities,” Murphy wrote.
Another study has found less voter participation in local elections once a newspaper closes in a community, with few people showing up at the polls and fewer contested races.
“We think one of the important roles that newspapers provide for communities is to tell them what local government is actually doing,” says one of the report’s authors, Jay Jennings at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas. “If you don’t know what local government is doing for your community, why would you want to be a part of it?”
Social media and the rise of citizen journalists don’t fill the same role, he says, because untrained reporters often don’t understand rules of fairness and objectivity and because citizen journalists often bring personal agendas to the local topics they write about.
Jennings’ research, which is continuing, includes long interviews with reporters and editors at the papers still in operation about how they view their work.
“They’re really doing more with less. And they’re really being innovative and working hard and trying to find solutions to cover local government as best they can,” Jennings says. “They talk about democracy. They always talk about how important it is. The editors especially say that this is something they have to prioritize, that they think it’s important.”
Fred Rutberg was listening to a lecture a few years ago by a prominent national journalist who said that democracy required citizenship and a town square where people could discuss the issues that mattered to them. He leaned over to his wife and said, “That’s The Berkshire Eagle.”
The retired judge was referring to his local newspaper in western Massachusetts. The venerable paper traces its roots back to the founding of the nation, has long been known for the quality of its local news coverage, and has produced alumni who have gone on to work at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
But in the 1990s, the paper was sold to out-of-town corporate ownership and in subsequent years was beset with budget cuts and staff reductions. Readers began to notice that there were fewer stories about what was going on in their county.
So Rutberg put together a small group of local investors that included top executives of major businesses who had vacation homes in the bucolic community known for its summer cultural life.
They purchased the paper four years ago and decided they had to offer more, not less, to residents to keep them reading the paper in a coverage area that runs the length of the state from the Connecticut border up to Vermont.
They created a Sunday features and arts section, all locally produced; expanded local sports coverage; and, at a time when most papers are shedding staff, are adding four reporters. It’s a financial gamble, but one that Rutberg, now the publisher, says is working so far. While most papers are losing print subscribers, the Eagle is holding steady—and digital readership is up.
“We’re developing what I like to call an emotional connection with our readers,” says editor Kevin Moran, “whether it’s providing the news and information that they need, or entertaining them, or providing thought-provoking commentary, or having a thriving letters to the editor section and commentary section.
“One of the things that we hear frequently from people is they thank us for giving them their newspaper back.”
One of those readers is Melissa Baehr, who stops in each morning to buy her coffee and the day’s Berkshire Eagle at Palmer’s Variety Store, down the street from her house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The daily ritual keeps her in touch with her neighbors—and so does reading the paper. She not only relies on it to tell what she needs to know about her community, she also depends on it to highlight the needs of the Berkshire Community Action Council, where she works.
“I help support low-income individuals in our community, specifically children around wintertime, with our warm clothing program, which serves over 2,000 children every year,” Baehr says. “The Berkshire Eagle has always supported the program. Usually when that article [about the program] hits the paper, we see a huge increase in donations, cash donations, new coat donations, new boot donations, and new warm clothing. I have people calling me on the phone, saying what can I do to help?
“It just goes to show you how important the local paper is.”
Daniel LeDuc is the editor of Trust.