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About 9,000 newspapers were being published in the United States in 2004. Since that time, about 1,800 community and metro papers -- about 20 percent -- have gone out of business or merged since then. About 70 percent of the papers that died were in suburban areas with multiple news sources, but many others were in non-county-seat towns that are losing population. "The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated," says the study report by Penelope Muse Abernathy, the school's Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics and a former executive at major national newspapers.
Tom Stites of the Poynter Institute summarizes the report: "Of the 3,143 counties in the United States, more than 2,000 now have no daily newspaper, 1,449 have but one newspaper of any kind, and 171 counties, with 3.2 million residents in aggregate, have no newspaper at all." The study report says. "Roughly half of the remaining 7,112 [newspapers] in the country – 1,283 dailies and 5,829 weeklies – are located in small and rural communities. The vast majority – around 5,500 – have a circulation of less than 15,000."
Of the communities that still have news coverage, hundreds of papers have scaled back so much that they providing little local coverage and have become what Abernathy calls "ghost newspapers. . . . Once stand-alone iconic weeklies have merged with larger dailies and gradually disappeared. Metro, regional and state papers have dramatically scaled back their coverage of city neighborhoods, the suburbs and rural areas, dealing a double blow to communities that have also lost a local weekly." Online and broadcast entrepreneurs are trying to fill the void, but rarely in rural areas.
The study found that 516 of the closures or mergers were of rural newspapers, while 1,294 were in metropolitan areas. "Most of these counties where newspapers closed have poverty rates significantly above the national average," the study report says. "Because of the isolated nature of these communities, there is little to fill the void when the paper closes."
The study paints a grim portrait of the future, noting that hedge funds and private equity firms, which are concerned with profits more than journalism, now own many newspapers: "More than half of all newspapers have changed ownership in the past decade, some multiple times. The largest 25 newspaper chains own a third of all newspapers, including two-thirds of the country’s 1,200 dailies. Not surprisingly, the number of independent owners has declined significantly in recent years, as family-owned papers have thrown in the towel and sold to the big guys. The consolidation in the industry places decisions about the future of individual papers, as well as the communities where they are located, into the hands of owners with no direct stake in the outcome."