News deserts: U.S. counties without newspapers in 2018. In the U.S., 171 counties do not have a local newspaper. Nearly half of all counties - 1,449 - have only one newspaper, usually a weekly. Graphic: University of North Carolina

By Tom Stites
15 October 2018

(Poynter) – It’s hardly a secret that news deserts are spreading, but just how bad is it?

A comprehensive new study released today by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism shows that far more U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage — more than 1,300 — than previously known.

Top findings:

  • About 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the United States — about 1,800 — have gone out of business or merged since 2004, when about 9,000 were being published.
  • Hundreds more have scaled back coverage so much that they’ve become what the researchers call “ghost newspapers.” Almost all other newspapers still publishing have also scaled back, just less drastically.
  • Online news sites, as well as some TV newsrooms and cable access channels, are working hard to keep local reporting alive, but these are taking root far more slowly than newspapers are dying. Hence the 1,300 communities that have lost all local coverage.

“The stakes are high,” the researchers say in their report. “Our sense of community and our trust in democracy at all levels suffer when journalism is lost or diminished. In an age of fake news and divisive politics, the fate of communities across the country — and of grassroots democracy itself — is linked to the vitality of local journalism.”

UNC’s startling statistics arise from a comprehensive new database created by its researchers. With publication today of their report, The Expanding News Desert, the database became available to all to search, down to the county level, at usnewsdeserts.com.

The 14-member research team, composed of four full-time researchers and 10 graduate and undergraduate students, first melded data in differing formats from almost 60 national, state and regional newspaper organizations as well as from the Local Independent Online News Publishers, or LION. They then overlaid the result with demographic, political and economic data from government sources.

News deserts: U.S. counties without newspapers by region in 2018. Graphic: University of North Carolina

A preliminary analysis in May showed that at least 900 communities had lost all news coverage since 2004. Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC who directed the year-long study, said in an interview that no work she had ever undertaken had spurred so much response as the earlier finding.

Then her team used internet research and interviews to resolve conflicts and ambiguities in the data, some of which was out of date and some of which was ambiguous because different sources kept data in different ways. This led to today’s announcement of more than 1,300 news desert communities, supplemented with stories of many publications and communities that epitomize the trend.

“This is more than baseline data,” Abernathy said. “It shows the scale and scope of the problem and allows us to concentrate on places that are most at risk.” [more]

About 1,300 U.S. communities have totally lost news coverage, UNC news desert study finds

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