Rural areas hardest hit by death of American newspapers

A new study released Monday by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism details the stark decline of newspapers in the U.S. and particularly in rural areas, where citizens are less educated, poorer and older.

Data: UNC School of Media and Journalism; Note: Investment firms include New Media/GateHouse, Digital First Media, CNHI, Civitas, tronc/Tribune, BH Media, 10/13 Communications; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Why it matters: Because of the isolated nature of communities in which many papers have dissolved, "there is little to fill the void when the paper closes."

Between the lines: The report shows that the collapse of the newspaper industry, beginning around 2004, has been getting worse.

  • According to the study, newspaper sales and closures/mergers via the seven largest newspaper investment owners have increased over the past five years.
  • Major newspaper holding companies often aren't incentivized to invest for future growth opportunities, but rather to flip the papers to be profitable in the short-term, largely by cutting back on staff and resources.

By the numbers:

  • The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two-thirds of the country’s 1,200 dailies.
  • There's been net loss since 2004 of almost 1,800 local newspapers. About 70% (1,300 papers) that closed or merged were in metro areas (suburbs).
  • Between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no dedicated news coverage.
  • Today, almost 200 counties (of the 3,143 total counties in the U.S.) have no newspaper.

Last year I caught up with Penny Abernathy, the report's author, who has been studying the economic decline of newspapers for years and asked her about the importance of newspapers in society. One quote that stuck out:

“A good newspaper shows you how you’re related to people you didn’t know you were related to. It gets you back to your sense of place."