Despite its importance to community life, local journalism is in crisis. In the past 15 years, over one-fourth of American newspapers went out of business.1 Tom Stites, “A quarter of U.S. newspapers have died in 15 years, a new UNC news deserts study found,” Poynter (July 27 2022) Today, over 200 U.S. counties do not have a local newspaper, and those losses are concentrated in less affluent communities “that have no alternative source of reliable local news.”2 Abernathy, “News deserts,” p. 89.
It’s not just the increasing number of these “news deserts” that is concerning, but also the hollowing out of the news outlets that remain. One recent study concludes that many of the 6,700 newspapers still standing have become “ghost newspapers,” operating with just a fraction of the reporters and resources they once had.3 Abernathy, “News deserts.” These resource-strapped newsrooms often replace truly local content with cheaper-to-produce national news culled from wire services, internet searches, and social media.
Overall, in many parts of the country, the public’s supply of quality, trusted local news is lower than ever.4 However, as documented by journalism scholar Nikki Usher in her recent book News for the Rich, White, and Blue (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), some liberal, upscale and Democratic-leaning communities in certain parts of the country are served by a disproportionate number of news outlets. Almost half of U.S. adults (47%) in a recent survey said their local news outlets mostly cover areas outside where they live.5 Pew Research Center, “For local news, Americans embrace digital but still want strong community connection” (26 March 2019). That finding is echoed here in Oregon: In a recent OVBC survey, the second-most common reason people gave for dissatisfaction with local news was a lack of local coverage, or what they perceived as too much focus on Portland or national news.
The hollowing out of local news is in part due to the increasing conglomerate ownership of local media, including a growing number of news outlets that have been acquired by private equity firms.6 Brier Dudley, “Study: Private equity firms buying newspapers cut local news,” Seattle Times (February 18, 2022); see also Pickard, Democracy without journalism? Confronting the misinformation society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020). Six conglomerates currently own more than half of U.S. newspapers,7 Future of Media Project, “Index of US mainstream media ownership,” Harvard University (2021). and these owners often reduce staff in order to cut costs, and lack ties to the local community.8Benjamin Toff and Nick Matthews, “Is social media killing local news? An examination of engagement and ownership patterns in U.S. community news on Facebook,” Digital Journalism (2021), pp. 1-20. These newspaper chains include Alden Global Capital that currently owns more than 200 newspapers around the country; Gatehouse Media (part of Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the U.S.), which owns over 260 newspapers around the country including the Statesman Journal and Register Guard here in Oregon; and Lee Enterprises, which owns 90 dailies around the country including several in Oregon, such as the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Corvallis Gazette-Times.9See McKay Coppins, “A secretive hedge fund is gutting newsrooms,” The Atlantic (14 October 2021); Amanda Ripley, “Can the news be fixed?” The Atlantic (18 May 2021).
Meanwhile, local television—a main source of news for many Americans10 Pew Research Center, “Local TV news fact sheet,” Pew Research Center (13 July 2021). —is also being transformed and challenged. In contrast to the situation facing many local newspapers, the economic picture for local tv stations is relatively strong, which means that many do invest in producing local news coverage. By some accounts, local television news production is higher than ever, leaving local television as seemingly “the most obvious medium to fill the local news void.”11 Penny Muse Abernathy, Abernathy, “Filling the Local News Void,” UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media (n.d.). However, overall viewership has declined,12 Pew Research Center, “Local TV news fact sheet.” and national stories are increasingly taking the place of local stories on television, just as they are in newspapers.13 Gregory J. Martin and Joshua McCrain, “Local news and national politics,” American Political Science Review 113, no. 2 (2019), pp. 372-384.
The increasingly challenging economic environment for local news has meant the loss of many of the reporting jobs that produce local news. Between 2008 and 2021, legacy newsroom employment dropped by 26%, representing a loss of 30,000 newsroom personnel.14 Mason Walker, “U.S. newsroom employment has fallen 26% since 2008,” Pew Research Center (13 July 2021). Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that Oregon is among twenty U.S. states with a comparatively low concentration of news industry jobs.15 “Occupational Employment and Wages,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The explosion in social media has exacerbated the challenges for local news. Many people now encounter news indirectly via social media networks rather than directly from news organizations.16 Matthew Hindman, The Internet Trap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018); Kirsten Eddy, “‘The differences seem to be growing’: A look at the rising generation of news consumers,” Nieman Lab (June 22, 2022). From a business perspective, social media platforms divert audiences and siphon off advertising dollars, while digital platform algorithms often disadvantage local journalism compared with other kinds of content.17 Joshua Benton, “If Facebook stops putting news in front of readers, will readers bother to go looking for it?” Nieman Lab (12 January 2018); Nushin Rashidian, George Civeris, and Pete Brown, “Platforms and publishers: The end of an era,” Columbia Journalism Review (22 November 2019). Social media platforms and search engines “now control as much as 80% of total advertising spent in many media markets… undermining the very business models that sustain local news.”18 Toff & Matthews, “Is social media killing local news?,” p. 5.
Yet because audiences now congregate on social media19Pew Research Center, “Social media and news fact sheet,” (20 September 2022), journalists have to spend more time trying to manage social media feeds, which can leave less time for reporting news.20 Damian Radcliffe and Ryan Wallace, “Life at local newspapers in a turbulent era: Findings from a survey of more than 300 newsroom employees in the United States,” Columbia Journalism Review (7 October 2021). Most news outlets today maintain a presence on Facebook and other social media because those platforms have effectively become the gatekeepers of online information. But it’s not clear that local news can effectively compete with other social media content for the attention of an increasingly distracted audience. Meanwhile, Facebook has recently decided to stop paying news organizations the modest sum it had been paying for their content to run on the platform’s News tab.21 Sara Fischer, “Scoop: Meta officially cuts funding for U.S. news publishers,” Axios (28 July 2022).
Earlier optimism about the possibilities for social media advertising and audience traffic to sustain local journalism has faded, while the growing misinformation, mistrust, and polarized debate prevalent on social media create a difficult environment for journalism to make headway in. As one journalist responded to a recent survey, “Cultural polarization is bleeding into people’s attitudes toward news”22 Radcliffe and Wallace, “Life at local newspapers.” —a challenge described by many of the people we interviewed for this report, as described further below.
Overall, national trends paint a concerning picture for the local news that is so important to community civic health. What is the picture here in Oregon?