Project Censored’s directors, Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, have repeatedly asked what would happen if journalism disappeared. With 2023 in the rearview and 2024 presidential elections on the horizon, a look back at the state of local news across the United States gives additional pause to the “what if” question. For over a decade, The Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism has produced a yearly report on The State of Local News to track the spread of news deserts across the nation. The 2023 report is the most extensive to date, and its key findings are sobering.
Local newspapers are closing at a rate of at least two per week. Two hundred-four counties have no local print, digital, or broadcast news sources, and 1,562 counties have just one local news source, typically in the form of a weekly newspaper. Suburbs have taken a hard hit to their local news sources, both in affluent and working-class communities. Larger cities have lost out too—Boston, New York City, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis/St. Paul show a combined loss of approximately 500 newspapers.
A “watch list” for endangered news
For the first time, the annual report has generated a “Watch List,” noting 228 counties with just one news outlet that are in danger of losing their remaining local news. Of those 228 counties, most are located in the rural South and Midwest with majority populations that are Black, Hispanic, or Native American. State of the Local News co-author, Sarah Stonebely, says that the US is “really is still a country of journalism haves and have-nots in a lot of ways [and] in a lot of rural and less affluent counties, there just isn’t any local journalism at all.”
The 2023 report summarizes that, since 2005, the United States has lost approximately 2,900 newspapers, including 130 confirmed closings or mergers in the past year alone. Many of the closures were weekly papers that acted as sole providers of local news for small and medium-sized communities.
As of the report’s publication, there are only 6,000 newspapers in the country—approximately 1,200 dailies and 4,790 weeklies. Also since 2005, 43,000 news reporters have lost their jobs, most of whom were employed by large metro and regional daily newspapers owned by one of the nation’s ten largest corporate chains. Today those corporate-owned dailies employ less than one-fifth of the number of reporters staffed in 2005. After years of buying up and merging newspapers, in 2023 many of those same large corporate chains either shut down newspapers or sold them off to other chains or owners.
Rebuild Local News asserts in no uncertain terms that the collapse of local news threatens the civic health of cities and towns across the nation. Consequences of the demise of local news include increased government waste and corruption, political polarization, and the spread of disinformation.
Uninformed citizens invariably lack knowledge about political candidates, voting in their areas, and civic engagement, contributing to less functional and responsive local government. Poorly informed voters rarely know about electoral imperatives such as campaign contributions that privilege elites, political lobbying tactics, and the sway of dark money among every branch of government. According to OpenSecrets, this information, especially when publicized by journalists committed to upholding the public’s right to know, is crucial to realizing a truly representative and accountable democracy.
For further perspective, Rebuild Local News cites that, in 1966, 70 percent of the voting public could name their mayor. By 2016, a mere 40 percent could do the same. Moreover, the decline of local news impacts public health as well as political savvy. A dearth of local news in communities means that disease prevention and tracking are more difficult. Citizens who have no or little knowledge about environmental pollutants and regulations, local workplace safety issues, and weather and climate emergencies are consequences of significantly diminished access to trustworthy local news.
Alternative and independent news sources would seem a likely solution to the local news crisis. And yet, reports the 2023 State of Local News, the existing network of approximately 550 digital-only news sites, 720 ethnic media organizations, and 215 public broadcasting stations is small, clustered around metro areas, and struggles with business and financial challenges that affect their growth and sustainability.
Glimmers of hope emerge
Grim outlooks aside, the 2023 report found seventeen bright spots in the local news landscape. The report featured a list of news outlets that have served their local audience for at least five years with journalism that holds the powerful to account, most notably their elected officials. These outlets share other features that add to their success, including being privately held and controlled, employing large reporting staffs relative to their locale, and devoting time and space to fostering local relationships and responding to the needs of their communities. Project Censored has long advocated for reinvesting in journalism as a public good, which includes cultivating public interest in the sort of journalism that democracy requires.
Because the Local News Initiative at Northwestern began with the goals of reinventing the relationship between news outlets and audiences and elevating enterprises that empower citizens, the Initiative also tracks news consumer behaviors to discern characteristics such as what audiences are willing to pay for and audience preferences for how they consume news.
Project Censored, referencing the work of media scholar Victor Pickard, posits alternatives to the corporatized market-based model of news consumption. Asserting that commercial journalism has never fulfilled all of a democratic society’s needs, Pickard’s ideas for local and public-owned news outlets align with Rebuild Local News’ proposal for public assistance in newsrooms. Acknowledging that many journalists (and citizens) would balk at the idea of the federal government funding their publication, Rebuild focuses on public policies that would preserve editorial independence.
The 2023 State of Local News also reports on a national initiative called Press Forward, a coalition of 22 funders that announced in September 2023 a new program of grants for local news outlets. Press Forward says it is ready to help implement new frameworks and policies aimed at expanding news and information access, strengthening the First Amendment, and protecting local journalists’ editorial independence.
Similar to Pickard’s vision for a policy program that “reduces monopoly power; installs public interest protections; removes commercial pressures; and builds out public infrastructure,” Press Forward promises to fund local newsrooms to close inequality and inequity gaps, scale production and dissemination, strengthen community-focused journalism, and expand access to trusted news sources. While this rings a positive note to the new year, it isn’t yet clear when these grants will be funded, or exactly to whom.
The more important takeaway from the State of Local News 2023 report reinforces the ultimate mission of Project Censored and the message of the State of the Free Press 2024: local, transparent, independent news is vital for informing the public and empowering citizens with the knowledge and agency necessary for civic engagement, for making well-informed decisions on issues affecting daily life, and for holding the powerful accountable. As pivotal US presidential elections loom ahead, the local news crisis will come into sharper focus, reminding us that we do not want a world without journalism.