It is called the news desert: areas of North America that no longer have a local newspaper. And the desert is growing, swallowing up larger and larger swaths of the continent as newspapers shut down. There’s also a term for publications that still function but have been hollowed out by layoffs and budget cuts: ghost newspapers.
If you live in a community that still has a viable local newspaper, consider yourself lucky. That luck might not last unless your community rallies to save its local news media. I’ll throw some statistics at you and point out that between 2004 and 2020, the United States lost one-quarter – or 2,100 – of its newspapers, according to a report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. After the pandemic hit, the U.S lost another 360 newspapers.
On January 18, the Canadian Postmedia chain announced it was moving 12 of its community newspapers in Alberta to digital-only formats. That same day, Postmedia also announced it had sold the Calgary Herald building for $17.5 million to U-Haul. Those newspapers are not shutting down, at least not yet, but their physical presence in the communities they serve has disappeared as the remaining journalists abandon bricks-and-mortar offices to work from home. But there are fewer journalists. News reports from other agencies said Postmedia was cutting more than 10 percent of its workforce to save money. More and more publications are on a slippery slope to becoming ghost newspapers.
I don’t want to get melodramatic by saying losing your local newspaper means losing your community’s soul, but who else knows – and tells – your community’s story? Who else covers your city hall, tells you about the school board, touts the achievements of your respectable citizens and discloses the criminal activities of the more disreputable?
Regional newspapers at the state and provincial level likely won’t. National outlets certainly won’t unless your community is hit by a high profile scandal or natural disaster. You might get a digital replacement but as the Medill report points out, “Most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a digital or print replacement.” And even then, struggling digital replacements tend to be understaffed, underfunded and overlooked.
For communities already struggling themselves, loss of their local newspaper becomes a vicious cycle: “Most communities that lose newspapers and do not have an alternative source of local news are poorer, older and lack affordable and reliable high-speed digital service that allows residents to access the important and relevant journalism being produced by the country’s surviving newspapers and digital sites.”
And losing your newspaper will actually cost you money, as a 2020 report for the Journal of Financial Economics concluded: “Overall, our results indicate that local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.” How much money? The report went so far as to declare, “Following a newspaper closure, municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points, costing the municipality an additional $650 thousand per issue.”
Communities without local newspapers also have less informed voters and lower voter turnouts.
There’s a whole other facet to this troubling news desert sweeping North America. The Internet and social media have opened an existential can of worms about the nature of news and how we perceive it.
We’ve had media upheavals in the past when newspapers were threatened by radio and then when both were threatened by television. But the threat focused on how people received their news, not the news itself. Now the very idea of what is “news” is threatened.
Forty-some years ago you might have received your news about Nixon and Watergate through print, radio or television, but the facts as they emerged were pretty much the same on all media whether you read the New York Times or watched Dan Rather. But today, newsrooms are fighting for their lives against the rise of dubious news sources and outright fake news stories on social media.
The irony is that more people than ever are reading professional mainstream journalism – but they don’t pay for it. Companies like Facebook and Google that don’t produce the stories make money online nonetheless from readers clicking on ads to read the articles. While social media is picking newsrooms’ pockets it’s also stabbing them in the back by spawning so many dubious news sites and so many competing versions of reality with their “alternative facts.”
So, what can a concerned citizen like you do to help prevent your town from turning into a news desert? Subscribe to your local paper. Don’t just read the news, pay to read the news. It’ll likely cost you about $10 a month, depending on the outlet. Think of it as an investment in your community, because that is exactly what it is.
Here’s another bit of advice. If you’re a business, organization, or just a citizen with a good story to tell, take the effort to contact your local newspaper. These days, newsrooms are understaffed and the few journalists that are left are swamped. For most newspapers, gone are the days of beat reporters who had time to dig up stories. Summarize your story idea in a sentence or two when you contact the newsroom. Answer the question that journalists ask themselves when they sit down to write an article: why should people care about this?
Just as I asked myself when I sat down to write this column.
Local newspapers are a crucial part of local life.
A vibrant local paper doesn’t just reflect a vibrant community, it helps build and maintain a vibrant community.
Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for
more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken political columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays, you can find his analysis and opinions as a freelance columnist for the CBC, CTV, Toronto Star, and Alberta Views Magazine, among others.
He also shares his thoughts on politics as a speaker at public events held by a wide range of public and private organizations.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org