The news gap is a growing problem: "Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have closed their doors since 2004, according to a 2017 study conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media . . . And small-town newspapers with circulations of fewer than 20,000 are the markets taking the biggest hits," Phil McCausland reports for NBC. Meanwhile, "U.S. daily newspaper circulation — print and digital combined — fell an estimated 11 percent in one year to 31 million in 2017. That’s half of the readership that newspapers enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s."
Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told McCausland that community journalists play a vital role in holding local governments accountable. "What happens when people aren’t being watched?" Cross said. "As they say, when the cat’s away, the mice will play."
Cross was skeptical of the sustainability of digital startups to cover issues in small towns. Another problem is finances: some startups are non-profit and some are for-profit, but many are having trouble creating coherent financial strategies to achieve solvency, according to the Local Media Association's February survey of almost 200 media leaders in charge of small digital operations. Fewer than a quarter of the operations surveyed said they had enough staff to meet revenue goals.
Non-profit ventures like Report for America could help with staffing though; the program places journalists in local newsrooms. "In the past five or 10 years, there’s been a lot about how technology is going to save journalism, and a lot of that is partly true," Steve Waldman, the nonprofit's co-founder, told McCausland. "But we’ve now discovered that none of that matters if there’s not enough reporters. At the end of the day you’re not going to improve local journalism without local journalists."