|Screenshot of introduction to The Lost Local News Issue of The Washington Post Magazine|
In honor of Giving NewsDay yesterday, The Washington Post Magazine published a package of stories
celebrating local journalism and warning of the dangers of expanding news deserts. It includes a suite of stories solicited from journalists across the country, reminding the paper's national readership of the breadth and depth of news that is being lost to readers as "news deserts" expand through closure and hollowing out of newspapers.
The stories range from one about how a West Virginia pastor cultivated a racially diverse congregation in an overwhelmingly white area, to an investigation into suspicious grizzly-bear deaths in Idaho.
"Some of these stories have been previously covered by outlets that are trying against long odds to preserve a market for local journalism, and we are indebted to their work; other stories are being told here for the first time," the Post says. "What all these stories have in common is that they deserved more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.
The Post notes that "about 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics."
The phenomenon, which the pandemic has accelerated, "poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should have alarm sirens screeching across the land," writes Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.
A note from Al Cross, professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog:
The Post says "Every piece in this issue originates in a news desert," but that does not conform to reality (the West Virginia county is served by two dailies) or to the definition it cites from Northwestern University Visiting Professor Penny Muse Abernathy, who started tracking news deserts as the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She defines a news desert as "a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grass-roots level." The Post misinterprets what that means: "In practice, this means counties with few — sometimes zero — print newspapers of any kind." What the Post seems to not realize is that one-newspaper counties have been the norm in the U.S. for a long time, and it seems to dismiss the ability of weekly papers to provide comprehensive reporting that feeds democracy. Maybe the Post folks need to get out more.
With each story, the Post gives what it calls "the newspaper landscape in the story's setting," but that information is limited to the number of newspapers and how many print editions they have each week. It doesn't say anything about the quality of journalism they provide, though it does provide links so readers with plenty of time can judge for themselves. In some cases, the Institute for Rural Journalism knows from previous experience that some of the communities are well served.
The first story comes from three people in Bethel, Alaska, which doesn't have a paper but has a good public radio station, KYUK, which employs one of the reporters. The grizzly-bear story comes from a community served by a locally owned weekly, the Island Park News, which says "This newspaper is CERTIFIED politically incorrect and 100% American." A story about a drug-court judge comes from Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, where the weekly Rio Grande Sun has won many awards, including some for coverage of the local drug problem. No news desert there. In seven of the 12 cases, the communities are served by dailies, and in several cases, they have covered the topics of the stories.