The COVID-19 pandemic has affected hundreds of thousands of small businesses, and news organizations have not been exempt. When the pandemic first hit CandG News halted publication for several weeks, the Troy-Somerset Gazette and the Detroit Metro Times made layoffs, employees were furloughed at the Detroit Free Press and the Macomb Daily no longer operates out of a newsroom. These are just some local examples of how the pandemic impacted the local news market. And, while these cuts will certainly affect the communities in which they operate, local newspapers began suffering long before COVID.
In Michigan, there have been more than 30 newspaper closures, several mergers of smaller papers into larger organizations and a loss of more than 40 percent of journalists since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center also found there were about 114,000 newsroom employees in 2008 in the US and by 2019 that number decreased to about 88,000. The brunt of that decrease occurred at print news organizations, with about 72,000 people being employed at a newspaper in 2008 and only about 35,000 being employed in 2019. While digital and broadcast newsrooms experienced increases in employment and serve as sources of delivering the news, that doesn’t mean the impact of a local newspaper on a community was maintained. There is just as much news today, and arguably more, to be reported on but fewer and fewer resources to do so.
According to the New York Times, 65 million Americans live in a county with only one local news source. In the Midwest there are 27 counties without a newspaper, according to Poynter. This means there is zero or maybe one local news source to report on city council and school board meetings, police and fire operations, business and a host of human interest stories in dozens of counties across the region and country. Certainly not everything can be followed and reported on in a county by one newspaper. When a story is reported on relating to any one local government it is more often than not that readers lack the full understanding of the story and its impact due to prolonged periods of disengagement by both the news organization and the community itself.
Disengagement in local news directly affects voter turnout, the number of candidates who run for local office and an increase in the potential for corruption. For example, a Governing.com study found that for every additional staffer hire a 6 percent increase in local voter turnout was expected. The study also found that for each additional staffer a newspaper were to hire per 1,000-person circulation the number of candidates who would run for local office would likely increase by a factor or 1.2. As for corruption, when local newspapers are thriving, or least not clawing themselves out of a hole, more time and resources can be spent to follow local policy and spending decisions and truly get to know a community so even small discrepancies or irregularities can be recognized and investigated. Additionally, the Brookings Institute “Local Journalism in Crisis” report found that borrowing costs significantly increased for counties where a newspaper closed. While this doesn’t directly point to wrongdoing it does leave many question as to why.
The necessity for strong local journalism is clear and as this pandemic dredges on and government budgets dwindle their importance only grows greater. One of the beauties of newspapers/journalism is supposed to be how it acts as the fourth estate, the watchdog of government. But, continued decline in newspaper advertising revenues, circulation and staffing levels current approaches to local journalism and its funding are not proving to be successful. This leaves a question as to how these local news organizations can diversify their revenue sources and if government subsidies for the organizations or the readers could help keep them afloat. Creative means to maintain local journalism are vital. To ensure this country has an educated and engaged electorate and sources to unveil wrongdoing and encourage civic participation we must support the local news organizations we currently have and also vocalize their importance and demand more coverage.