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Media

Our Growing Local News Desert

Local news is in crisis. Can new business models stay the damage, here and across the U.S?

Graphic from a recent Facebook study showing areas where local news is robust enough to launch a new product aimed at news readers—and where it isn't.
Source: Facebook Journalism Project
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Local news is having a moment. Philanthropic interest in bread-and-butter community journalism is at an all-time high. Google and Facebook, the great titans that together own almost two-thirds of the digital advertising economy, are beginning to sit up and take notice of the fact that the local content their users rely on to keep up with their communities is disappearing.

The national spotlight on local news comes not a minute too soon, for an industry that has been devastated by massive shifts in how businesses spend their advertising dollars. More than one in five US newspapers have closed in the past 15 years, the closings driven both by the crumbling of the traditional print news business model and the inability of news outlets to compete meaningfully with Google and Facebook for digital ad revenue. Between 2008 and 2017, the nation lost almost half of its newsroom jobs: 45%, according to a Pew Research Center study. Recently, deep staffing cuts at national digital publishers have rocked the industry: BuzzFeed, Vice, and the Huffington Post each shed hundreds of jobs in 2019.

Last month, Facebook made waves by publishing a map of “news deserts”: a county-by-county look at news across the nation, showing places where local news is too meager to support “Today In,” a new Facebook module that collects local news stories targeted to users.

One in three Americans lives in a “news desert,” Facebook researchers concluded. What is a news desert? For Facebook, a town in a news desert is one where, over the course of 28 days, company researchers could not find five or more recent news articles directly related to the town. It’s a low bar, and yet for many communities, this is the new normal.

The Hudson Valley has more local news resources than many regions, and the roots of our flagship papers run deep; the Poughkeepsie Journal, which covers a wide swath of the mid-Hudson region, is the oldest paper in New York State.

But our region has not been spared the bloodletting in local news. Larger papers have gotten thinner as a result of layoffs sparked by declines in ad revenue. In some cases, ownership of local dailies by investment firms means that local newsroom staffing priorities are being set by people remote from both the region and from journalistic values. A hedge fund notorious for making deep cuts to the newsrooms it acquires—Alden Global Capital, owner of Digital First Media and the local Ulster County-based Daily Freemanrecently attempted a hostile takeover of the Gannett newspaper chain, a prospect that could spell trouble for the Gannett-owned Poughkeepsie Journal and the Journal News.

While the shrinking of smaller media outlets attracts less public attention than troubles at flagship dailies, the local news crisis is no less acute there. More than a few of the Hudson Valley’s weekly papers, which provide most of the local news coverage of the region’s smallest towns, have shrunk considerably or disappeared entirely over the past few decades. It is increasingly common for government meetings in the most rural parts of the Hudson Valley to be held without any reporters present to observe and keep the public informed of town business.

Hardy flowers thrive in a harsh desert landscape. Source: Pixabay.

The Emerging Ecosystem of Local News

If there’s a silver lining in the ongoing local news crisis, it is that it has resulted in a flowering of new ideas and new business models. In places where large legacy outlets have closed or cut back, journalists who can’t imagine themselves in any other line of work are applying all their ingenuity to finding ways to keep their communities informed. New media outlets have hardly begun to replace the journalism jobs lost over the past decade, but in many communities, they are surviving and thriving.

Meanwhile, larger forces in the journalism world are beginning to take notice of local news at the smallest level. In February, the Knight Foundation, a prominent national nonprofit that funds journalism and the arts, announced a five-year, $300 million initiative to support local news. Among the Knight’s plans for the funding are initiatives that are helping news outlets develop new business models or directly supporting local nonprofit newsrooms.

Some recent news experiments—like Civil, the platform The River is based on—are building new digital technology for funding journalism and delivering it to readers. In many communities, local news entrepreneurs—some of them casualties from layoffs at larger papers—have started their own digital-only news outlets, and are experimenting with both for-profit and nonprofit business models to fund journalism that is truly local and relevant to their communities.

One of the best resources for keeping up with what’s happening in the world of local journalism startups is the Nieman Lab, a project of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation that publishes daily about innovations in journalism. Poynter and the Columbia Journalism Review also report frequently on developments in the local news ecosystem. Michele McLellan, a journalist and researcher, maintains a database of local news startups at MichelesList.org.

No matter what kind of community a news outlet covers, no matter what kind of coverage it seeks to produce, no matter whether it is funded by advertising or large-scale philanthropy or reader support, one thing holds true across the board: Original reporting costs money. Here at The River, we are fundraising to build a newsroom with the capacity to deliver on our mission: deep, thoughtful features that are rooted in the Hudson Valley, but nationally relevant. Consider supporting that mission.