Do You Live in a News Desert?
While the contemporary era is marked by almost instantaneous access to information worldwide, a crisis is unfolding in local media that proves detrimental to our institutions and can significantly impact our daily lives: news deserts, which are communities, whether rural or urban, with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information essential to sustain democracy. This is not an exaggeration. A study published in The Journal of Politics by Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless reveals that citizens exposed to reduced news coverage are less likely to vote and express opinions about local politics. Given that local politics is where individuals can have a more direct impact, it is crucial to examine the causes of these deserts and what can be done to prevent them.
This phenomenon is not new. Since 2005, approximately 2,500 daily and weekly newspapers have closed their doors, leaving fewer than 6,500 in operation today. Furthermore, research from Northwestern University estimates that one-third of American newspapers in existence two decades ago will cease to exist by 2025. Even in regions fortunate enough to retain local news outlets, newsrooms have been hollowed out, and many journalists have been laid off.
Several factors contribute to the rise of news deserts, often attributed to a combination of two key factors: the ubiquity of the internet and mobile phones, and the collapse of the traditional print newspaper business model. Roughly 85% of adults own smartphones, granting them access to a wide array of national news sources and countless information (and disinformation) outlets.
Originally, the internet provided free access to such sources, discouraging audiences from seeking paid news sources, which were often local newspapers. This led to a gradual collapse of the business model that sustained these organizations and gave rise to areas devoid of local news.
Alaska is not exempt from this issue. While the Anchorage area itself is not a news desert, according to data from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of South Carolina, Alaska has 14 census areas (municipalities, boroughs, counties) without a newspaper and 12 with only a single newspaper. The situation is even more dire when considering ethnic media, with Sol de Medianoche being listed as the sole ethnic newspaper in the state.
Amidst these challenges, there are glimmers of hope. Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Northwestern University, emphasizes that new nonprofit digital local news startups have emerged in various locations, alongside legacy news outlets successfully transitioning from print to digital formats. Local news is increasingly being delivered through newsletters and digital platforms, indicating a potential path forward.
Congress, too, is stepping into the fray. Two bills introduced in 2022 reflect a dual approach to addressing the crisis. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, inspired by Australian legislation, mandates negotiations between tech giants like Meta and Google with news organizations to compensate them for content use. Supporters hope this will inject much-needed funds into local news outlets.
On the other hand, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act seeks to provide $1.7 billion in tax credits to news organizations that hire journalists to cover local news and events. While it was initially omitted from the Inflation Reduction Act, there is optimism for its revival in a revised form in 2023. Several state legislators have also proposed similar measures, including tax credits for local business advertisements and subscriptions to local newspapers and digital platforms. This additional support contributes to the industry’s resilience.
In the meantime, it is imperative for communities to support their local newspapers. This goes beyond preserving a traditional industry; it involves recognizing their role as guardians of democracy and platforms for conveying information that directly impacts people’s lives. At Sol de Medianoche, we are here to stay. We remain committed to supporting our community and are grateful for our readers’ support. We hope that as we adapt to the challenges of our digital age, you will continue to stand beside us as we educate, inform, and unite!