As ‘news deserts’ widen across America, communities and civic engagement fray

A new study has researchers worried about the future of our democracy.

At a moment in our nation’s history, when seemingly everybody is connected to one another with a digital device that allows them to swim in a never-ending stream of news, information, and opinions, far too many Americans are bereft of meaningful access to credible information about what’s going on within the commissions or school boards governing their own communities.

These Americans live in what are called “news deserts.” These places are a swelling number of counties across the nation, from rural outpost to urban core communities, where traditional and mainstream media outlets do not reach or cannot inform the thousands of fact-starved people living in them about the daily occurrences in their own backyards.

According to a comprehensive study released earlier this week by the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, as the newspaper industry suffers through continuing losses in readership and a concomitant financial decline, the civic watchdog role played by the media is threatened.

In its report — The Expanding News Desert — researchers at the UNC School of Media and Journalism found that more than one in five newspapers across the land have closed over the past 15 years, stranding thousands of communities without a source of authoritative local news or information about their community. Specifically, the report notes that half of the nation’s 3,143 counties in the country now have only a single newspaper, usually a small weekly, that barely covers its community’s various public boards, commissions, and governmental agencies.


In an interview with ThinkProgress,Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC who directed the year-long research said that the common denominator of news deserts is that counties without a newspaper or only one newspaper tend to be “places that are already in distress.” As such, the people who live in them are more likely to be poorer, older, and much less educated than Americans who live in counties with multiple mainstream sources of news.

While news deserts exist disproportionately in the South, where 91 counties are without newspapers, they crop up in many other locales. The Mountain and Mid-West region have 28 and 27 counties without newspapers, respectively, and the Pacific region has 19 counties without newspapers. The Mid-Atlantic and New England regions were relatively better off with only three counties, respectively, without newspapers.

Abernathy said that an earlier report released in May showed at least 900 communities had lost newspaper coverage since 2004. But the more recent report, which expanded considerably on the extant research, demonstrated that the spread of news deserts was much more significant than previously observed, with some 1,300 communities identified as such.

“This is more than just a baseline set of data,” Abernathy said. “We’re trying to build a very comprehensive database that academics, community activists, and others can use to understand the size and scope of the problem, and hopefully use to address it.”

Indeed, the problems posed by news deserts is growing and multi-faceted, as every state in the nation has experienced the loss of news media over the decade and a half period that the researchers studied. “California lost the most dailies of any state,” the report said. “Some of the most populated states – New York, Illinois and Texas – lost the most weekies.”


What’s more, while more than 500 newspapers have either been closed or merged in rural communities since 2004, a similar news vacuum exists in the nation’s suburban and urban neighborhoods, where the report notes, “residents have historically relied on community weeklies to keep them informed about the most pressing hyperlocal issues.”

Media scholars and observers have long noted that civic participation tends to ride in tandem with newspaper readership. A 2016 Poynter Institute study found that “people who are strongly engaged in their communities and vote locally are more likely to follow local news.”

As news deserts spread over wider swatches of the population, the UNC researchers fret that the nation’s democracy becomes increasingly imperiled. They write:

In our connected age, there is an abundance of news and opinion, coming at us 24/7. The latest terror attack, the presidential debates or the shenanigans of celebrities. It’s all covered in minute detail, and we are free to share it and our opinions on the matter. But missing from that motley collection of trivia and substance is news of what is happening in our own backyards, save the personal videos posted by friends. Local news about a tax increase or a zoning decision is rarely of such interest that it trends, but it has an outsized impact on the everyday lives of residents in small towns, city neighborhoods, and suburbia. When local newspapers fail, these communities are often left without any news organization to care about, watch over and report on the actions of the county commission or the local school board.

Abernathy said some poorer communities “just don’t have the economic base to support a newspaper” and that the intent of the UNC study is to spur Americans concerned about fostering civic engagement “to take a real hard look” at providing reliable information in those communities.

“Businesses, universities, governments, news professionals and nonprofit organizations need to develop new models for providing information in those communities,” she said, pointing to the final section of the study that offers alternatives to the subscription-based and advertising-based funding formats for newspapers. “Revenues generated from readers only will result in newspapers for only the most affluent areas. There’s a role for public and philanthropic groups to help figure out new ways of keeping all citizens informed.”