The pandemic has been bad for the country’s local newspapers. But maybe not as bad as some people have feared.
Over 360 newspapers in the United States have gone out of business since just before the start of the pandemic, according to a new report from Northwestern University’s journalism school.
That same pace — about two closures per week — was occurring before the pandemic. Many newspaper analysts had thought that the economic conditions created by the coronavirus, especially a decline in advertising, would cause the rate to increase considerably.
“The good news is there were a lot of fears as the pandemic set in and we had a very severe economic constriction that it was going to be kind of the death knell for many newspapers,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, author of the report and a visiting professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “The good news is it didn’t occur. The bad news is, or the concerning news is, we are continuing to lose newspapers at the same rate we’ve been losing them since 2005.”
The closures have perpetuated the problem of so-called news deserts — places with limited access to local news, the report said. Over one-fifth of Americans now live in such a place, or in a place that is at risk of becoming one.
Overall, 2,500 newspapers in the United States — a quarter of them — have closed since 2005. The country is set up to lose one-third of its newspapers by 2025. And in many places, the surviving local media outlets have made major cuts to staff and circulation.
Investments in local journalism are mainly focused on larger markets, the report found. That has fueled a disparity between communities with access to high-quality news organizations and those without it.
“What that does is it feeds into a nation that is divided journalistically, and when you have a nation divided journalistically, it exacerbates our political, cultural, and economic divisions,” Abernathy said.
Major media companies, such as Gannett, which have been thought of as a solution to the threat facing local journalism, are quick to sell or shut down unsuccessful newspapers, according to the report. What is more, privately owned regional media companies that have “no obligation to explain their strategic and financial decisions, identify their largest shareholders and report yearly earnings,” have purchased many of the floundering newspapers, the report said.
“Truth of the matter is, who I elect to the school board affects me much more than who I vote for for president,” Abernathy said. “That’s why we’ve got to get back to rebuilding local news in these struggling communities.”