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News Deserts: The Death March of Local Journalism

... And What We Can Do About It

The death march of local journalism looks set to continue in 2019… and you best believe it is a very real problem for our democracy. Diverse and robust local media coverage is highly important to a democratic society, yet the corporate media sector seems unable to do anything to halt the raging dumpster fire of consolidation, layoffs and centralisation of content production. All this means we are increasingly seeing ‘news deserts’ appearing in local communities. A skeleton crewed, centralised corporate media simply does not sufficiently represent the communities it claims to serve. The weakening of local and public service journalism is already having a serious impact, particularly in the politics arena, where it once played a crucial role in exposing local and central government corruption and holding power to account. The inherent danger of this trend should be apparent and concerning to anyone who believes in the ability of quality journalism to act as a watchdog for taxpayers and consumers.

There was once a time, so I am told, when local beat journalists could actually go to council meetings and cover the proceedings on a day to day basis as opposed to generating banal clickbait. Perhaps it wasn’t always the most glamorous posting, however this was how journalists of old cut their teeth and developed their journalistic instincts and understanding of how the political system and commercial interests interconnect. We are not likely going back to the old days of well funded local journalists employed by organisations with a stable advertising revenue based business any time soon. However, there are some hopeful new developments in the digital local journalism space. Anyone concerned about the issue must do what they can to ensure these experiments are successful – the alternative is not attractive.

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The Death March of Local News

According to Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Media Economics at the University of North Carolina almost 1,800 US newspapers (nearly one in five) have closed in the past 15 years. In the UK this year, the Cairncross review also concluded that many local newspapers in the UK are owned by debt-laden publishers, and have cut investment and sacked hundreds of journalists in an effort to maintain profit margins.

But wait… haven’t journalists in digital start-ups or online editions such as Stuff replaced these newspapers? Apparrently not. The Pew Research Centre reported that in the decade ending in 2017, roughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news start-ups. Newspapers still employed more journalists — 39,000 — than the 13,000 at digital sites. Joel Kotkin also points out for the Daily Beast:

“At their best, the social media firms have supplanted the old advertising model, essentially undermining the old agencies and archaic forms like newspapers, books, and magazines. But overall information employment has barely increased. It’s up 70,000 jobs since 2010, but this is after losing 700,000 jobs in the first decade of the 21st century.”

Similarly, in New Zealand, the 2001 census reported there were 2277 journalists working in New Zealand, but by 2013 that number had dropped to 1527. It’s scary to imagine how much worse the stats are in the (yet to be released) latest census results.

Former Scoop Foundation Trustee, Jeremy Rose reported for RNZ Mediawatch in December, on the hollowing out of New Zealand's newsrooms over the last couple of decades. Rose reported that in December, Stuff axed 19 Journalist positions in Auckland and Whangārei in its latest round of cuts. He speculates that things are only likely to get worse with such cut-backs becoming a ‘grim regularity’

The real problem is that it seems that local news is almost always the first coverage to go the way of the Moa in such cut-backs. In 2018, for instance Stuff also closed NZ Farmer and 15 other rural and community print titles as part of their ‘digital first’ approach. The big Media Conglomerates cutting local news services usually claim they will continue serving local areas by outsourcing or “helicoptering in” journalists on a needs basis.

There is no replacement for real local journalism, by local reporters and journalists, with stable salaries and resources to do their job. When each of those experienced local New Zealand journalists left the newsroom over the past decades (or rather the newsroom closed), they also took with them their deep connections to the community and their knowledge of local issues and people. That is something no amount of “helicoptering in” or online engagement can compensate for. Once gone, it is very unlikely the corporate media will bring it back, especially if their competitors also retreat from the market.

The rise of News Deserts

Researchers at Duke University concluded that of more than 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days, across 100 U.S. communities not situated in major media markets, there were 20 communities where local news outlets contained not a single local news story – or “News Deserts”. The crucial findings of the study include that less than 12 percent of stories met all three criteria in the study for ‘local news’— a truly local topic/event (17%), original, locally produced content (43%), and addressing a critical information need (56%) - i.e. pertaining to emergencies and risks, health, education, civic life, political life, transportation, environment and planning or economic development.)

The results of the Duke study are even more disturbing for working class communities as they clearly show that communities with minority populations may not be as well served by local news outlets. I suspect that similar results would be seen if looking at coverage of rural or local news, or indeed news on lower socio economic areas in New Zealand.

Why Local News Matters

So why does the decline of local journalism matter? What happens when a community loses a newspaper? Or when the newspaper no longer has enough reporters to cover the news?

The correct answer to all of the above appears to be that the dissapearance of local coverage has very serious impacts on the health of our democracy and our communities. This rise of these ‘news deserts’ is a great loss for our society and is aiding the creation of a serious information deficit in communities. As Joyce Terhaar writes for the Royal Gazette:

“Whether you follow the news or not, whether you trust journalists or not, the financial challenges slaying local newspapers will affect your community, your wallet, your quality of life. In some cities, they already have.”

None of this is rocket science; as usual we just ignored the canary in the print room. In fact, Terhaar points out that even the US Federal Communications Commission had a bleak prognosis for the likely outcome of this decline of local news way back in 2011, “More government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems.”

Almost a decade later, we are only just starting to fully come to terms with the serious nature of the effects of this loss of the Media as a watchdog. Politico, for example, recently reported on the clear geographic correlation between a lack of local news outlets and Trump supporters in the 2016 presidential elections:

“Trump thrives in areas that lack traditional news outlets. Relentless use of social media and partisan outlets helped him swamp Clinton and exceed Romney’s performance in places lacking trusted local news media… POLITICO’s analysis suggests that Trump did, indeed, do worse overall in places where independent media could check his claims.”

So, what happens when consolidation means a top down national political agenda is forced onto local news subsidiaries? Well, in the US, Sinclair does. The conservative Sinclair Group is the largest owner of TV stations in the US and the largest owner of local TV news, reaching 39% of US homes. The problem is people trust local news more than they do national news. According to the New Yorker, seventy-six per cent of Americans say that they still trust their local news stations—more than the percentage professing to trust their family or friends. The New Yorker outlines how dangerous this situation is:

“Sinclair employees say that the company orders them to air biased political segments produced by the corporate news division, including editorials by the conservative commentator Mark Hyman, and that it feeds interviewers questions intended to favor Republicans.

A now famous viral video graphically demonstrated Sinclair’s newsrooms parroting of Trump’s ‘Fake news’ agenda in Orwellian ‘must run’ segments in 2017:

This all seems to suggest that the post-truth, post-Trump era was partially enabled by the disappearance of local news. On a more local scale, we are also more likely to see a rise in corruption and serious abuses of justice, human rights and environmental laws going uncovered. Once people in positions of power realise they can get away with such activities without fear of exposure, power will no longer be held to account by the press. That represents a dangerous loss of accountability.

But Local news in New Zealand is doing much better… right?

Er… not really! New Zealand is no exception to this concerning trend. Consolidation and lack of funding appears to be having a particular impact on local reporting, and as a result, on local democracy here too. In fact, by way of example, RNZ MediaWatch compared the coverage of Hutt City Council and local issues in the first two weeks of November 1998 and those of 2018.

“A rough count revealed that the Dominion, Evening Post and Hutt News combined published 20 local body stories over the two week period in 1998 compared to none during the first two weeks of last month on the Stuff website and the Stuff-owned Hutt News”

A couple of copies of Hutt News from 1998 Photo: RNZ

Sadly, it appears this is becoming an all too common scenario as coverage of local body politics has declined dramatically over the past 20 years across New Zealand. Jeremy Rose for MediaWatch continues:

That lack of scrutiny and coverage extends right around the country... it has become increasingly common for local body meetings to be journalist-free zones.”

Rose also makes the following point in the MediaWatch article:

“In a sign of just how bad things have got a press release put out by the Hutt City Council last August announcing it was reviewing how its councillors and community boards were elected failed to generate a single story. The press release was re-published on the Scoop website - but that was it.”

This is exactly why Scoop maintains our constant daily feed and permanent archive of press releases for councils and government departments. Even if no one else is reporting on such events, at least there is usually a record on Scoop of the official communications and an opportunity for community groups to learn about opportunities to participate. Organisations can help us keep this archive alive by joining ScoopPro.

The ‘Market Failure’ of Corporate Journalism

Local newspapers and online publishers such as, have continued to lose once lucrative ad revenue to the tech giants for the better part of the past quarter-century. As Joel Kotkin points out for the Daily Beast, Media organisations globally are at war with the “modern-day robber barons” of the tech oligarchy. Facebook and Google now dominate the digital ad marketplace by using highly sophisticated algorithms, earning them more than 60 percent of all digital ad revenue.

This threatens the financial solvency of most publishers and leads to ‘clickbait’ and other perverse economic incentives that pollute editorial autonomy, with dangerous results for such superfluous content as public interest journalism and local news.

However, Remso W. Martinez says that local newspapers and even nationwide magazines were on a downhill trend even before Facebook et al, and that what we are witnessing right now with the decline of local journalism isn’t the start of something bad, but the result of something getting worse. He also states:

“The market delivers what consumers want- and they want easier, faster, and more mobile content to feed their craving for click bait and other ways than reading…The market simply hasn’t taken into account the growing ‘news deserts’ or regions and localities where there is almost no reporting of local news from a resident’s point of view.”

As I pointed out in my last article, as well as the tech oligarchs-cum barons, we are also still up against the ‘good old fashioned’ type of capitalist robber barons. I argue that Capitalism itself, or more specifically, the corporate model behind journalism has played a big part in enabling the decline of local news coverage.

This corporate model, with its insatiable grab for profits from hedge-fund owners, shareholders and overpaid Executives, has driven increasing consolidation, cost cutting, layoffs and restructuring in the Journalism industry. This model has led to serious ‘market failure’ in the media sector, as it is in many other industries where a drive for profits prevents us as a society from pursuing social, environmental or other public interest goals despite awareness that we must do so.

It is not that rural, niche and community papers or news are not profitable or have a good following, in fact evidence suggests local journalism has a very high following and high levels of Trustworthiness. Independent community papers are still doing very well compared to most other municipal level papers. Instead, this problem is a result of a system that favours choices made in the interests of increased profitability and shareholder dividends over the interests of the public. The reality is that it is simply easier to cut costs by centralising operations and providing a one size fits all, cookie cutter media coverage á la Sinclair with little locally focused content and few if any on-the-ground journalists.

This approach is clearly not increasing the quality or diversity of coverage provided to the reader. Like the issues of Climate Change or ecosystem collapse, the ‘public good’ of delivering trusted local news media is far too important to our democratic future to leave to the vagaries of free market capitalism as has been done. I would suggest it is also a massive oversight and missed opportunity on the part of the corporate media conglomerates to overlook the desire for genuinely local and community centred news content. This oversight presents an opportunity for innovative initiatives in the local news space to fill the gap.

When a Solution is not a Solution

There are a couple of market-based ‘non solutions’ being proposed to address this problem. Government intervention through subsidies is one. In 2018, the Canadian Government announced it would spend $600 million to protect public-service journalism, using tools such as tax incentives. The Cairncross inquiry into the market dominance of Facebook and Google in the UK, also made recommendations including possible journalism subsidies. However, subsidies like this do not necessarily change the system, and as such are limited in their ability to change much.

Corporate Philanthrophy is another non-solution. In January, Facebook pledged to spend $300 million in the US to help local newspapers, a year after Google promised the same amount. As Terhaar says:

“It’s a good start, but not nearly enough: the duopoly controls most online advertising revenue, benefits from news content, yet doesn’t pay for the substantial cost of quality journalism. Bold intervention is what we need.”

A perhaps more promising solution is the BBC’s Local News Partnerships project and the similar ProPublica funded Local Reporting Network in the US. The UK project has seen the BBC team up with more than 50 private sector news organisations to create 150 journalist jobs reporting decisions taken by local authorities and other public bodies. RNZ Mediawatch reports that Minister of Broadcasting, Kris Faafoi is also interested in this approach and that News companies - including Stuff, NZME and RNZ - are wondering whether this could be a joint solution to the emerging problems here. Such

Most of these solutions essentially still amount to propping up a few reporters in already ailing newsrooms without really sustainably addressing the underlying issues of why they are ailing. They do not address whether the structure of these organisations is appropriate and where the profits from media platforms are going. Regulation of the tech oligarchs was recommended by the Cairncross Inquiry, and also has also been proposed recently by Elizabeth Warren in the US. This would be a far more effective approach for Government intervention. However again is limited in its scope to address some of the other systemic problems of corporate journalism so it seems that a wide range of effective interventions may be required.

Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom: there are some innovative solutions emerging that attempt to address these underlying issues and could give us hope of a renaissance in local journalism.

Real Solutions

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

Taking a cue from Albert’s book, if the root of this problem is capitalism, then the only robust answer is for local journalism enterprises to adopt thinking outside of the Corporate Media ‘business as usual’ paradigm. What we need is a diversity of decentralised local journalism initiatives with resilient non-profit or cooperative models that sit outside of the influence of the Corporate system. In other words, what is needed is a new and more distributed governance model for the companies that produce journalism that protects them from the vagaries of the capitalist market.

Thankfully, many such models already do exist; a number of non profit, reader owned and member funded and operated online newsrooms are having great success globally in gaining readership and securing funding.

Trust owned newsrooms such as Scoop (owned by the Scoop Foundation) and The Guardian or ProPublica are good examples of one of the new models in action. Such newsrooms are not susceptible to acquisition or hostile takeovers or shareholder inspired interference as corporate journalism organisations are.

Crux is another local example owned and published by the not-for-profit Southern Community Media Trust and has a focus on local issues and action. Crux has partnered with the School of Journalism at Canterbury University and a key part of their mission is to contribute to the education and development of young journalists, as well as finding innovative solutions to community issues.

Cooperative Newsroom ownership is another solution starting to gain more attention. A notable example is The Colorado Sun, started by a group of journalists laid off after the Denver Post was acquired by Gannett last year. These journalists now have stable employment as worker/owners of a thriving news coop that crowdfunded US$161,493 from 2,622 backers to help bring the project to life.

The Bristol Cable is another organisation shaking up local print journalism with a cooperative structure. They specifically advertise “no barons or hedge-funds”, and instead are powered by over 2,000 members who all own an equal share in and have a say in the running of the media co-operative.

I have already extensively covered the De Correspondent model which is based on ‘engaged journalism’ and optimised for trust by enabling journalists to build up a relationship of collaboration, transparency and trust with readers. Jay Kosa points out that this engaged journalism approach may well help to bridge the divide between ‘large market’ journalists and local ‘news desert’ communities:

“While there might not be much use for the word engagement at small community papers, engaged journalism practices may offer value by equipping larger outlets to better cover rural communities… In some cases, building relationships proactively can be the difference between those outlets getting it right and completely missing the mark. We also risk sowing further mistrust when we parachute in only when something goes horribly awry.”

Kristen Hare, who covers local news innovation for the Poynter Institute, believes we are already seeing more of a willingness to pay for local and niche focused news and an understanding that it’s worth paying for. This is driven by a convergence of factors including the decentralization of news, coupled with the rapid consolidation in local news by big players and the fairly easy and inexpensive access to digital publishing tools. Finally she says it is also a result of the evolution of a more ‘engaged’ membership-style relationship.

Scoop’s Solution

Scoop maintains that it is important that we do all in our power to protect quality local news. For this reason, the “Scoop 3.0” plan is Scoop’s attempt to implement core elements of the exciting innovations listed above.

However, most of the “engaged journalism” models around also still rely on reader members paying for news subscriptions, albeit on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. This still raises equality and ethical issues as lower socio-economic groups are for various reasons, less likely to subscribe to paid services, and it does not therefore totally solve the problems of local news deserts.

The ScoopPro commercial membership revenue model offers something a little different to the world of local digital journalism. We believe that because this revenue model is built on charging commercial users for accessing press releases and added services, it reduces the need for a paid membership model. All Scoop information is available to the public free of charge. Our Scoop 3.0 plan aims to spread this ScoopPro commercial service model to other independent local publishers around New Zealand giving them access to a sustainable revenue source.

To help us ensure that this all happens, we are seeking another 40 organisational members to join the ScoopPro ‘Founding 300’ organisations. These companies (including the 260 existing members) will receive special benefits and will be a core part of this new membership community as we progressively add new membership features and services. They will also have VIP access to the Scoop 3.0 equity crowdfunding offering later this year.

Join the ScoopPro Founding 300

All ScoopPro annual packages are 25% off until 31 March.

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