Jul 18, 2019 - Economy & Business

Local news deserts are getting some relief

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

News deserts in cities and small towns all over the country are beginning to capture the attention of big tech companies, donors, regulators and advocacy groups who want to step in and save local journalism.

Why it matters: Newspaper closures that started in rural America are creeping towards small and medium-sized cities. Often, the closing of local papers leaves communities without the watchdogs that can keep municipal governments accountable and productive.

Driving the news: McClatchy is creating a local news outlet to serve Youngstown, Ohio, just weeks after the city's daily newspaper, The Vindicator, announced it would be closing,

  • McClatchy's investment marks the launch of a wider project called The Compass Experiment — an initiative that's funded with Google to develop new business models and launch new outlets in underserved news communities.
  • “When we heard that Youngstown’s daily newspaper, The Vindicator, would be closing, we saw an opportunity to help a community with a rich heritage and distinct identity find a path forward for local news,” says Mandy Jenkins, general manager of The Compass Experiment.

The details: Jenkins says that her team is already on the ground in Ohio working with people in the community to set up a digital news outlet that will launch in the fall.

  • She said the paper's closure was a surprise, but that the timing makes their efforts in Ohio — and even some of the surrounding areas that the paper covers, like Western Pennsylvania — even more important.
  • "I started having conversations locally about what had been dropped. Often times, that's been coverage of day-to-day government meetings and functions, like city council meetings, police department updates, etc.," Jenkins says.
  • For now, there's a team of five people locally who will launch the project, including one business person. McClatchy is also working with freelancers and other media partners.
  • The company will have a website as its main product and will experiment with publishing frequency and alternative projects.

The big picture: McClatchy's efforts are a byproduct of the nearly $1 billion invested by tech companies, philanthropists and lawmakers to ensure that local news is revived in news deserts.

  • On Wednesday, Facebook announced the first 23 grant recipients of the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network in partnership with the Lenfest Institute. These grants support initiatives that connect communities with local newsrooms around the country.
  • Some state lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands. Last year, leaders in New Jersey agreed on a new state budget that includes $5 million in funding for innovative projects to improve local news in the state, per Nieman Lab.

Yes, but: At root, local news closures are an economic problem. And while some of these efforts seek to establish new business models for local news, the money donated to date will not alone be enough to revive the dying local news industry.

  • Between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no dedicated news coverage, per a study from University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism.
  • Today, almost 200 counties (of the 3,143 total counties in the U.S.) have no newspaper.
  • The problem, in fact, is so bad that Facebook says it can't even find enough local news to fill its users' feeds.

The bottom line: The local news crisis is finally getting attention, but it might be too late to reverse the problem.

Go deeper: Cities are turning into news deserts

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