Amid bad news, a permanent solution to a temporary problem

Since fall 2018, 300 more U.S. newspapers have disappeared, bringing the number over the last 15 years to 2,100. That’s almost 25% of the 9,000 newspapers that were published in 2005.
That’s one upshot of “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?,” a report published June 25 by Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Rural and small-city community newspapers, once the healthiest segment of the industry, are now caught up in its decline. One-third of the closed newspapers were outside metropolitan areas, the report says.
Our anecdotal observations at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues tell us that most of these vanished papers were not in county seats, but lately we have seen group owners close papers in county seats, sometimes leaving them without a paper.
“More than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues,” Abernathy writes. “About 1,800 of the communities that have lost a paper since 2004 do not have easy access to any local news source — such as a local online news site or a local radio station. These are news deserts, with no coverage of issues such as the quality of schools in that community or the spread of an infectious disease.”
Citing recent research, Abernathy notes that without a professional journalist covering meetings of public agencies, “transparency and government efficiency also decline. Residents in those communities frequently end up paying higher taxes as the cost of government borrowing rises.”
The financial health of a newspaper usually reflects the economic well-being of its community, and many of the vanished papers are in economically struggling areas. The average poverty rate in “news deserts” is 18%, half the national rate of 12%, the report says.
One of those was the Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia, Ark., which GateHouse Media closed in September 2018, with “only 1,600 subscribers in a community of 10,000,” Abernathy writes. We’ve written about others on The Rural Blog.
The trend of closures, mergers and transformations to online-only (which Abernathy also counts as a disappearance) has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating what she calls “the threat of dozens — even hundreds — more before year’s end.”
One of the nation’s largest chains of community papers has cited the pandemic in offering a permanent solution to what is likely a temporary problem.
Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which recently “merged” or closed newspapers in Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Oklahoma, has converted a daily and a weekly in southern Kentucky to online-only, following the strategy it recently took with a daily in eastern Illinois.
The Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times’ June 9 print edition was to be its last, due to “steep losses in revenue” from the pandemic “on top of burdensome print delivery costs, newsprint and ink expenses, and the production outlay required to run the presses,” it said.
The week before, giving identical reasons, CNHI did likewise with the Wayne County Outlook, a weekly in Monticello, which operates as a satellite of its daily in Somerset.
Glasgow will still be served by a weekly, the Barren County Progress, owned by a small regional group, Jobe Publishing Inc., but Wayne County, where I once ran a paper, is now a news desert.
CNHI has taken the online-only strategy with one other paper, the Shelbyville Daily Union in Illinois. Its primary strategy has been to “merge” smaller papers into larger ones, in effect closing them. That began in Alabama in April, when the North Jefferson News in Gardendale was merged with The Cullman Times. The towns are 40 miles apart and in non-adjacent counties. That looked much like the May merger of The Morehead News and two other weeklies in northeastern Kentucky with CHNI’s Ashland Daily Independent.
In Indiana, the company merged the Batesville Herald-Tribune and the Rushville Republican into the Greensburg Daily News, and the Zionsville Times-Sentinel into the Lebanon Reporter; in Iowa, it merged the Centerville Iowegian into the Ottumwa Courier, and The Pella Chronicle and the Knoxville Journal Express with the Oskaloosa Herald; and in Oklahoma, it folded the Edmond Sun into the Norman Transcript, though the two towns are on opposite sides of Oklahoma City.
My friend Bill Ketter, CNHI’s news vice president, told me, “Again, the reason is financial, tied to insufficient local advertising and subscribers. We are providing news coverage of these communities by the merged newspaper. CNHI’s goal is to save newspapers and serve our local communities in the best way we can. But given the overall economic challenges facing the newspaper industry, we cannot operate our smallest markets at a financial loss. Thus the alternatives of digital only and merged newspapers.”
Abernathy writes that the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact “has exposed the deep fissures that have stealthily undermined the health of local journalism in recent years, while also reminding us of how important timely and credible local news and information are to our health and that of our community. This is a watershed year, and the choices we make in 2020 — as citizens, policymakers and industry leaders — will determine the future of the local news landscape.
“Will our actions — or inactions — lead to an “extinction-level event” of local newspapers and other struggling news outlets, as predicted by some in the profession? Or will they lead to a reset: an acknowledgment of what is at stake if we lose local news, as well as a recommitment to the civic mission of journalism and a determination to support its renewal?”
Abernathy’s report, the fourth in a series, offers a path for reinventing local news: strong journalism, bolstered by outside sources such as philanthropy; better digital infrastructure to serve struggling rural areas; and public policies that treat journalism as a public good, including public funding.
I’m not for direct public subsidy, but I do favor enhancement of newspapers’ time-honored role in delivering paid notices of official activity and important information of public interest to citizens. The pandemic offers an opportunity for that.
With so much division, distrust and misinformation about the virus, governments should finance sample-copy editions of local newspapers that have a certain amount of factual information about it. At least two Kentucky newspapers, The Woodford Sun and the Cynthiana Democrat, have done that, with local money. Congress should help states use community newspapers all over America do likewise.

(Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.)