News deserts are expanding while democracy hangs in the balance

Making informed decisions begins with accurate information:

More than one in five papers has closed over the past decade and a half, leaving thousands of our communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities. Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated.

Before we talk about Corporate media issues, we need to look at the term "incorporated." When communities grow to the point they decide to be self-regulated, to provide services not readily available from county governments, they incorporate into a distinct municipal entity. That requires they begin exercising authority over citizens within those boundaries, and now we come to the part where democracy is in jeopardy. Because authority without responsibility and accountability is tyranny, by any other name. The Fourth Estate is a critical element in a democracy, because it provides a neutral assessment (it's supposed to, anyway) of the performance of elected representatives. And like many issues that plague our society, the poor and under-educated are the most at-risk of losing that critical information:

The residents of America’s emerging news deserts are often its most vulnerable citizens. They are generally poorer, older and less educated than the average American. They are much more likely to live in rural areas of the country. Eighteen percent of residents are living in poverty compared with the national average of 13 percent.

Fewer than 20 percent of residents of these counties have any college education, roughly half the nationwide average. Almost half of Americans living in a county without a newspaper also live in a food desert, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” Residents of low-income areas tend to be overlooked by advertisers are less likely to purchase subscriptions and have less access to both legacy and digital media, according to Stanford University economist James Hamilton.

This has long-term social and economic consequences for rural communities. Since residents in news deserts tend to be less informed about key issues in their community, they are less likely to vote.

I can recall back in the mid-2000s a major push by community activists and media watchers for community newspapers to shift to a hyper-local stance, in part to fill in the blanks that 24-hour news outlets and the Internet left out by focusing on national and sensational stories. That helped, to a certain degree, and we started seeing some really good coverage of local government activities.

But then came the corporate freight train, buying up local newspapers and turning them into glorified coupon books:

The Smithfield Herald began publishing in 1882, the same year that the railroad arrived in Johnston County in eastern North Carolina. Throughout the 1900s, the family-owned paper located in the community of Smithfield, 30 miles from the state capital of Raleigh, received numerous journalism awards for its column writing and editorials, as well as its reporting on local news and high school sports. In 1980, the Raleigh News & Observer, which was then independently owned and operated by the Daniels family, purchased the Herald. Over the next three decades, The News & Observer, which was sold to McClatchy in 1995, acquired nine other community weeklies, including the Cary News, the Clayton News-Star and the storied 100-year-old Chapel Hill Newspaper, whose editor was immortalized in the nationally syndicated cartoon

Over time, the news staffs at each of the weeklies were reduced until there was only one reporter covering each of the 10 communities, and the buildings where the papers were once published were sold. In 2017, citing financial reasons, McClatchy converted all 10 of these newspapers into advertising publications, titled “Triangle Today,” distributed free to nonsubscribers and composed of “repurposed” entertainment, lifestyle and sports news, as well as syndicated columns. All 10 of these suburban Raleigh communities now rely on The News & Observer for primary coverage of local news. This means that routine city and county governmental meetings in these communities are no longer covered by any news outlet.

The path of the almost 600 papers that followed this trajectory in becoming a ghost newspaper raises concerns about the future of the country’s remaining 3,200 metro and suburban weeklies that are owned by larger metro and regional dailies. This includes, for example, the 23 Houston weeklies and one daily purchased by Hearst in 2016 from 10/13 Investments and merged into the Houston Chronicle as zoned editions. As the economics of the metro and regional dailies continue to deteriorate, will many more suburban weeklies transition from zoned editions with local news to advertising publications without any local news?

The short answer is "yes." Unfortunately, that's also the long answer. In the absence of a genuine (human) journalist researching and compiling information for readers, the "news" will be shaped by the governments and businesses themselves via slanted press releases. And that's how "informed consent" dies.



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It's a long and mostly depressing drink of water, but it needs to be consumed. Hat-tip to UNC and Penny Muse for putting in the effort.