Penny Abernathy’s research on mapping “news deserts” is regularly cited in national newspapers to call attention to the economic crisis facing local newsrooms. But the local news crisis is complicated, and a single citation can’t tell the whole story.
CJR spoke with Abernathy about measuring the crisis and the complicated nature of telling local stories at the national level. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: Your work has been cited nationally so many times over the past year. What do you think people are getting right about your research, and what you think people might be missing?
Penny Abernathy: This is a really complicated story. There’s so much nuance that gets lost in everything that actually makes it into the national press. You have the problem that you have with a simple math equation: you tend to take an average. Or, instead, you focus on a specific thing. It’s really important to look at a very vibrant and multi-layered ecosystem. At the very top, you have the national newspapers. In between, you have the state and regional newspapers. And at the very bottom, you have the very local newspaper, and each one of them is facing a different problem, economically.
The paths forward will differ, depending on the economic viability of a market, the size of a market, the demographics of a market, access to digital. If you’re going to transition from a legacy method of distribution, such as print, to a vibrant and sustainable digital model, you’ve got to have the infrastructure in place and an educated public that knows how to access it.
We do not have a robust ecosystem. We have this poverty compared to what we had even a decade ago, regardless of whether you measure the loss of news organizations, or whether you measure the loss of reporters, or the loss of news stories.
If you are NPR, for instance, and you have added a thousand reporters, the real question is where those extra reporters go. Do you put them in specific markets that don’t have a news organization? Or do you try to recreate the investigative and contextual and analytical reporting on a regional and state level that has been diminished over the past decade? But when you’ve lost thirty-eight thousand journalists over the last decade, you have to be very strategic. And even though 96 percent of the country has access to NPR, there are certain areas that still don’t. How do you get through that last mile, especially when you’re looking at places where maybe only half to two-thirds of the people have access to internet and less than a fourth have access to high speed internet?
A lot of the national focus on your work centers around the loss of newspapers, which is a focus of your news deserts map. But you’ve looked at more than that. In terms of measurement, how has your research evolved?
I started tracking newspapers. Because there had been a lot of research over the last five decades that had shown that newspapers were often the prime—if not the sole—source of news and information, especially in small and midsize markets. Since then, I have started tracking digital sites. More recently, I’ve added things like television and broadcast, specifically looking to see what public broadcasting is done as it tries to fill the gap. And I’ve added ethnic newspapers as well. There are really several ways you need to look at the loss of news. Whether you call the loss a “news desert” or “news poverty”, what we’re experiencing is the loss of the quantity of news stories that we used to have, and the quality. If you lose a local newspaper, you’re losing the person who shows up at the town council or school board meeting. If you lose reporters—which we have, in huge numbers, at the state and regional level—you’re both losing the quantity of stories and the scope of stories.
Now, on our homepage, there’s a Rate Your Local News function. What we’re trying to get people to do is take the eight categories that the FCC identified in the last decade as being critical information needs, the information we need in order to have a good quality of life and make wise decisions that will affect not only our lives but those future generations. We don’t just say, “Are you getting news coverage?” We will ask you what you’re getting. Is it more than a meeting time? Does it have a byline? Does it tell you what was important in the meeting? And why? As early as 2018, Pew Research picked up on the fact that more than 50 percent of the people they interviewed found a lot less relevant local news available over a five year period. So in many ways, people know it’s not there. But they don’t know why it’s not there.
Your work has shown how long this has been a problem. With habit being such an important part of news consumption, for people who haven’t had good local news coverage for a long time, how do you get them back into a habit that hasn’t been available to them?
I think that is the question. At the state and regional level, you have had a huge diminishment of the number of journalists covering issues there. At the same time, you’ve had state and regional newspapers try increasing the cost of a yearly subscription. The downward trend is almost a direct mirror image as you go upward on the subscription price.
And what you end up finding in your news feed is really not local at all.
Your map distinguishes between counties with one newspaper and counties with none. How important is it to have more than one option? What does a healthy local news ecosystem look like?
In the best of circumstances, you have a diversity of news outlets. Because there’s no way one news organization can cover everything. Any news organization—whether you’re talking about an ethnic news organization, a nonprofit, or a typical legacy television or newspaper—is the result of the experiences and the outlooks and the training of the people who run it. They’re going to have different priorities. So in a robust ecosystem, you would have multiple outlets, each covering what is important to the people who read them.
But in most local markets, regardless of what people are willing to pay you, there’s just not enough money to support a vibrant newsroom. And we’re also dealing with the devastation of Main Street still, as a result of 2008, so you don’t have businesses clamoring to reach people with advertising.
What would we want to see fifteen years down the road? It would be great to have at least a couple of news outlets in every community: a couple of local ones and then a strong regional one that comes in to do the big picture. But in the meantime, there’s a real choice facing us as citizens, and residents in an area, as well as policy makers, and that is: Do we want something to replace the current model? Or are we looking for a transition to something better?
Your news desert map shows the number of new sources available by county in the United States. That’s a very clear way for people to see the problem at a glance. What are other people measuring? What else do you think we ought to be measuring?
I started mapping with a notion that it was about ownership. Because what I had noticed was the dramatic shift in ownership over the previous decade. But I think any good research builds on itself. After doing the initial reports—the ones in 2016, ‘17, and ‘18—people said they knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen it quantified. At the same time, Phil Napoli at Duke started building on what he had done at Rutgers to try to look at quality; that has been a really important step forward. We picked up on what Phil was doing and said, we’re also going to see if news outlets are even providing any of the information that the FCC says is important. It’s not just a matter of saying “there’s gonna be a county commissioner meeting tonight at X, Y, & Z.” Are there any local stories that are being done? Any stories that were bylined? We began to see that sometimes you can have a newspaper check off all the boxes of having covered maybe six of the eight categories, but they were nothing but press releases or announcements.
If you look at our report on the Facebook data in the 2020 report, when we looked at it at a North Carolina level, we saw that if you look only at headlines and use an algorithm to pick it up, you’re going to pick up things that probably are not what the FCC intended for public safety. So for instance, when we actually looked at the amount of stories that were about public safety, most of them were about bizarre crimes.
Sarah Stonbely, who has done local news mapping in New Jersey, has included places that people are turning to for information beyond a newspaper, like community groups. And she also tried to think a little bit about how to identify what a local community is beyond geographic boundaries. Which is tricky. And also really interesting and important. Is there another way to think about what we are measuring? And what can we see when we measure things in different ways?
Facebook can be additive, but it’s not gonna be a substitute. Community groups can be additive, but they’re not gonna be a substitute. What are all the aggregates, and what do they add up to? It’s not to say we’re going back to what we had, but there is a need to have some kind of general consensus for people as to what’s at stake.
I’d like for somebody in every state to be looking at it at a state level, because that’s going to be much more meaningful and enable us to target areas that aren’t getting the information they need at both the national and the state level. It’s going to differ for different states. Much of New Jersey, for example, is squeezed between two major metro markets, Philadelphia and New York. The needs in New Jersey are going to be different than the needs in North Carolina.
We’ve been talking a lot about measurement. What’s difficult to measure about the local news crisis?
There’s a way to measure just about everything. The question is, are you measuring broadly enough or specifically enough to have actionable information? Circling back to where we started in the beginning, an average can be awfully distorting. I think that the thing we need to hold onto is that for two hundred years, we had one dominant business model that sustained local news organizations. That has collapsed. And we’re not going to have one going forward, we’re going to have many. What we need to figure out is what is the best business model for a community, whether that’s for profit, nonprofit, some combination of that, etc. And this is going to take a philosophical adjustment.
And because we’re such a large country, it may well come down to a very local decision about what is to be supported. To me, it’s not a matter of arguing over the right course. I think every report that has come out, every bit of scholarship on this topic has been incredibly valuable over the past decade, in terms of not only helping us identify the problem, but helping us identify solutions, and understanding there’s not going to be one solution, but many solutions.
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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.