News Media Restructuring: New Inequities and Democracy’s Impact

Are there upsides to the reshaping of American news media? My normally-rose-colored glasses  brightened at the benefits listed in a recent NY Times article: a wider variety of quality news sources, at least online; more outlets for specific populations, like different ethnic groups; and greater diversity of thought. Unfortunately, the benefits are uneven, making this yet another arena in which historic inequities are getting worse and democracy suffers as a result.

As widely reported, many local news sources have disappeared, particularly with the closure of hundreds of local newspapers. A study last year by Northwestern University’s journalism school showed that 360 newspapers had closed in first two years of the pandemic, and a report released in November from the Local News Initiative at Northwestern projects that by the end of 2024, the U.S. will have lost a third of its newspapers since 2005.

This is bad news for civic engagement and democracy. “Authentic sources of communication” is a critical ingredient of a community’s civic capital, as discussed in the Civic Index published by the National Civic League. Losing a community’s main source of news can lead to lower voter turnouts, fewer people running for office, more corruption and less civic engagement in work to address important challenges.

Yet, the author of the Times piece, David Streitfeld, makes a compelling case for advantages of the restructuring that has occurred during the past couple of decades. “For all the celebration of the old days,” he says, “if you were in a city with a mediocre newspaper — and there were many — access to quality journalism was difficult,” pointing out the new access online to a wide variety of foreign, national and cultural news.

Streitfeld also points out that “the number of outfits serving communities of color — never very well served by traditional publications — has doubled in the past five years, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News.” This includes television news and programming. We no longer have to depend on a man like Walter Cronkite to tell us each night that “that’s the way it is.”

While there is certainly a downside to the fracturing and tribalism reinforced by the fact that so many people get their news from sources that share their viewpoints, as the melting pot of Americans fragments, we are also able to better accommodate a greater diversity of interests. As the Institute for Nonprofit News reports, the expansion of outlets focusing on communities of color from fewer than eight prior to 2008 to over 80 today, aims to “shift the narrative, providing explanatory journalism and analysis” that helps readers better understand current events.

And the expansion of alternative news sources, including many nonprofits, in some local media markets has created what Streitfeld calls a “news jungle” in places like Philadelphia. Indeed, a quick review of news sources in Philadelphia turns up at least 25 sources of local news, including seven television-based sources and many sources that still produce a print version in newspaper or magazine form. Many of these sources are focused on particular types of news or populations, like the Philadelphia Business Journal and the Black-based Philadelphia Tribune. And there are countless more publications that focus on particular parts of town.

A similar situation exists in Denver, CO, where one of the major dailies, the Rocky Mountain News, closed shop in 2009, and the remaining major daily, the Denver Post, employs fewer than half as many staff as it once had. Yet online sources like Denverite, the Colorado Sun, Axios and the Denver Gazette, provide extensive coverage of local news and events.

The problem, however, is that not everyone lives in a major metropolitan area like Philadelphia or Denver. News deserts abound in rural areas, as reported by the Institute for Nonprofit News: “Residents in more than half of U.S. counties have no, or very limited, access to a reliable local news source — either print, digital or broadcast. There are 204 counties without any local news outlet and 1,562 counties served with only one remaining local news source, invariably a weekly newspaper.” Further, many of those counties with only one source may lose that source, with 228 counties listed as being “at risk” by the Institute.

These losses make it even more important for local governments to facilitate the sharing of local news in an authentic way. Many cities have done so through social media, blogs and even hiring “story tellers.” Partnering with nonprofits and local colleges or even high school journalism classes can be another route to take, though many rural areas lack the resources and local institutions to do so.

As local news organizations have either closed, shrunk or reduced coverage of civic news, civic journalism organizations have emerged to fill the void in some areas, including City Bureau in Chicago, Resolve Philly in Philadelphia and Model D in Detroit. These and other organizations are playing an important role in covering civic affairs in a way that is not only positive, but also encourages civic engagement by local residents.

In terms of rural America, one national source of rural news is The Daily Yonder, which covers rural America with as many local stories as possible. A statewide effort to keep local news outlets alive is COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, which networks over 170 local news organizations to leverage news stories created by one outlet by sharing with the others. COLab, which has ongoing support from several Colorado foundations, also provides technical assistance to news outlets that might be struggling, in some cases connecting them to funders or helping to create a new financial plan.

The decline of local news sources is just one of several factors affecting civic capital in rural America. A recent report from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute lists access to local news as one of several factors determining civic health. Together with positives, like investments in libraries, broadband, parks and community centers, the report lists other, negative, factors that affect civic health, like barriers to voting and participation.

In the end, the map of civic health in the Wisconsin report looks much like the Northwestern report on news deserts, with many rural counties, especially in the South and Appalachia, with low prospects for attention to local news and low civic health. Sadly, these maps also look quite similar to other analyses of infrastructure—both civic and otherwise—in which there has not been the kind of investment in so many rural areas. And therein lies one of our great challenges as a nation.

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