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News Deserts Lead to Loss of Engagement

"Out of print" carries new meanings for the individuals trying to feel at home during isolating times

The space of news, media, and the role of journalism has grown as a topic of debate as the world grapples with the pandemic. National journalism took on a new role in 2020, one of translating COVID statistics and responses into digestible pieces of information. However, local journalism continued a decades-long downwards spiral, creating news deserts and negatively impacting community engagement. 

Despite the valuable role newspapers play as the primary source of local news, they have been in decline for over a decade. The Brookings Institution data analysis found that “Over 65 million Americans live in counties with only one local newspaper—or none at all.” According to a Pew Research Center analysis, newsroom employment has dropped 51% between 2008 and 2019. In a similar study, the Pew Center found that from Q2 2019 to Q2 2020 newspapers saw a 42% drop in advertising revenue.

The declining financial and staff capacity of local newsrooms to investigate stories close to home results in the local newspaper dropping in value to readers and the community. Beyond the immediate financial implications for local newspapers, there are two intertwined consequences: increased news deserts and a decline in community engagement. 

A news desert describes a community that is no longer served by a community or daily newspaper. Local papers begin decreasing the number of pages they print and ultimately collapse. According to the Pew Center’s analysis, “when a local newspaper dies, evidence shows civic engagement decreases, elected officials are less accountable, corruption is more pervasive and voter participation drops and becomes more polarized.”

Local news services like Patch and Nextdoor have sprung up to fill the market gap by covering local stories from a few regional production houses. These services, though economically viable, centralize away the empathy and vested interests that made local papers valuable community representatives.

In a series of dialogues hosted by Uniting for Action: America the Davenport Institute participated in a recent conversation with local journalists about the adverse effects of losing a local newspaper on community engagement. The dialogue highlighted feelings of isolation in communities without local newspapers as well as a desperate turning to other (potentially less reliable?) sources of news. 

The community impact of news deserts is best captured in a New York Times article interviewing residents in communities without local newspapers. “After years without a strong local voice, our community does not know itself and has no idea of important local issues or how the area is changing and challenged by growth. We are a nameless and faceless town defined only by neighborhoods,” said David Cohea from Mount Dora, Florida.  

The year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic warranted the translation of national news to the local level. Communities needed to know the practical ramifications in their neighborhoods as well as information about health initiatives such as testing clinics and supply provisions. Local governments adapted to these needs by going digital overnight and communicating through social media. However, not every community or neighborhood could access the information digitally. A gap still existed where the local newspaper once was. 

Newspapers have had significant value throughout American history. Thomas Jefferson famously defended and emphasized the role of the free press in keeping the government in check in his correspondence. In the 18th century, the newspaper was the home not only for news but also for political opinion on how our constitutional republic was to begin. In the 19th and 20th centuries, newspapers were the only medium of connection between government and community, as well as being a place to find community information like home and job postings. 

Technology has allowed local governments to stream meetings and provide live updates on Twitter. But, that technology comes with its challenges and limitations, primarily a loss of community engagement within the community itself amongst residents as well as between the local government and community members affected by digital ability or proclivity. 

This pivotal moment in local journalism calls for creative solutions. Individuals and community organizations seeking to impact the future of their communities must come together to revive, or perhaps reinvent, reliable reporting on the issues closest to home.

Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna is the assistant director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University