Discussion paper

A landscape study of emerging local news models across America

News media News consumption Local news Social media United States of America

“Between 1970 and 2016, the year the American Society of News Editors quit counting how many newspapers had fallen, 500 dailies went out of business,” reported Jill Lepore in her New Yorker article this year titled Does Journalism Have a Future?. This comes as no surprise to those who follow news. Unless you live in a major urban center where a local paper has a wealthy owner, you have also seen the slimming down of your newspaper.

The decline has intensified. Between 2004 and 2018, nearly 1,800 dailies and weeklies closed. Today, half of U.S. counties have only one newspaper while 200 counties have none, according to a University of North Carolina study. Almost 400 digital upstarts have emerged, but they are mainly found in big cities and affluent areas. As another acute measurement of the state of affairs, we lost 45 percent of newspaper “newsroom” employees – journalists and editors who report the news – between 2008 and 2017, according to Pew Research.

Even the promise of a digital press has crumbled. Along with about a quarter of digital-native news sites, Lepore wrote that a third of the nation’s largest newspapers that tried to add a digital presence reported layoffs, including The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Boston Herald, The Denver Post and The San Jose Mercury News. A year ago, The Boston Globe’s Evan Horowitz predicted the dilemma: “While you might have hoped that the decline of printed newspapers was being offset by a rise in internet-based news coverage, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

HuffPost’s early success was an example of the promise of the digital model. This new online newspaper adopted a legacy title “Post” but was built by bloggers and most were unpaid. Despite having circumvented some of the cost of reporters and taking in $146 million dollars in advertising revenue in 2018, it failed to turn a profit. The next generation experiments have also stumbled. BuzzFeed News laid off a hundred people in 2017 and double that number in 2019, and the youthful, venture-capital created Mic let go of most of its editorial staff and sold to Bustle for $5 million.

Local journalism is in crisis, off and online. Years of downsizing in the face of digital disruption have weakened regional and local news organizations. And the problem is growing worse, as advertising continues to shift in substantial measure to Facebook and Google. The Wall Street Journal reported that these giant tech platforms had secured over 86 percent of advertising growth in the industry by 2017. They now have 77 percent of all digital advertising revenue in local markets and 58 percent at the national level.

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