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The Fight to Save Local Newspapers



The words “Love Canal” are synonymous with toxic water pollution.

That’s due, in great part, to a young reporter named Michael Brown who worked for the Niagara Gazette in 1977.

Fresh out of college, Brown was the reporter who first detailed the underground water contamination that was plaguing the 15-block community near Buffalo in upstate New York.

The ecological disaster led to the eventual evacuation of the 800 homes in the Love Canal neighborhood as well as the formation of the federal Superfund cleanup program.


Remember “Bridgegate?”

The political scandal that helped derail New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions.

That story wasn’t broken by the Philadelphia Inquirer or “60 Minutes.”

It was first reported by The Record, a local newspaper in northern New Jersey.

In September 2013, John Cichowski, the author of the paper’s “Road Warrior” column, started investigating calls made to the paper by motorists complaining about terrible traffic tie-ups on the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between Fort Lee, New Jersey, and the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

Cichowski and others at The Record uncovered that the daily commuter nightmares were caused by the closure of two of the three access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s toll plaza.

It was eventually revealed that the lanes were ordered closed by officials in Christie’s office, apparently in retaliation for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich not endorsing Christie’s bid for re-election.

Christie won re-election, but the Bridgegate story dogged him when he ran for president in 2016.


The Washington Post is known for its coverage of the Watergate investigation that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The New York Times is famous for its publication of The Pentagon Papers, the top-secret Defense Department documents that critiqued U.S. decision-making in the Vietnam War.

The Boston Globe was featured in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight” for its reporting that blew the lid off the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002.

However, smaller community newspapers have also made their mark with local yet far-reaching stories.

Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his articles on the flood of opioids that were being sent to West Virginia towns by pharmaceutical-related companies.

The Arkansas Gazette was similarly honored in 1958 for its stories on the desegregation battle in the Little Rock school district.

The Flint Journal as well as local television and radio stations covered the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, long before the story received national attention.

And let us not forget it was 24-year-old Sara Ganim, a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot-News in Pennsylvania, who first exposed the child molestation accusations against retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in 2011.

Beyond the ground-breaking articles, community newspapers are also the publications that historically have kept residents informed about actions by their city councils and school boards. In addition, they publicize the openings of new businesses, the noteworthy deeds by local citizens and the issues important at the neighborhood level.

However, this lifeblood of American society is rapidly disappearing and the impact may be quite profound.


In a June 2022 report, Northwestern University researchers revealed that 360 newspapers had gone out of business in the United States between late 2019 and May 2022.

Since 2005, the researchers stated, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers. They predicted we’ll have lost a third of them by 2025.

Most of the closures were in rural and low-income areas with 211 counties now having no local newspaper. The researchers estimated that 70 million people, one-fifth of the nation’s population, live in areas with either no local news organization or just one outlet that is at risk. They say these areas have limited access to critical news and information.

“This is a crisis for our democracy and our society,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern’s school of journalism and the principal author of the report. “Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places where it is most difficult to sustain print or digital news organizations.”

Even places with daily newspapers aren’t getting the coverage they used to receive. The researchers said 40 of the nation’s 100 largest newspapers now deliver a print edition less than 7 days a week. Most of them are cutting back on printed products as they seek digital subscribers.

The paid circulation of daily weekday newspapers in the United States has plummeted from a high of 62 million in 1987 to about 21 million today. The number of weekday subscribers fell by 13 percent from 2021 to 2022. The number of unique visitors to newspaper websites, on the other hand, rose 14 percent between 2019 and 2021 and then again by an additional 22 percent in 2022.

A 2020 Pew Research report noted that the number of newspaper newsroom employees nationwide decreased from 71,000 in 2004 to 38,000 in 2018. It was estimated to have fallen to 30,000 in September 2023.

Newspaper advertising declined from $48 billion nationwide in 2000 to a less than $10 billion in 2022. It’s now less than the total circulation revenue of $11 billion. Digital advertising now accounts for 48 percent of newspapers’ revenue.

Some of the newspaper closures have been larger publications such as the Tampa Tribune in Florida and the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. But they also include small papers such as The Daily Times in Pryor Creek, a rural community in northeastern Oklahoma, and the Gridley Herald in Butte County in Northern California.

There’s also the phenomenon of “ghost newspapers,” publications that still have an online or even printed presence but cover little local news due to staffing and budget shortages.


The impact newspaper closures are having on local communities is varied and troubling.

On its website, the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media notes that community publications not only educate and inform citizens, but they also draw people closer together by helping us “understand how we are related to people we may not know we are related to.”

A 2019 report by PEN America titled “Losing the News” lays out the consequences in detail.

It concludes that the decline in community journalism is emboldening local officials to act with “less integrity, efficiency and effectiveness.”

This trend, the study says, is causing fewer people to vote, fewer of them to be politically informed and fewer of them to run for office.

The regions most affected, the study adds, are communities of color, lower-income areas and rural towns.

“Without reliable information on how tax dollars are spent, how federal policy affects local communities and whether local elected officials are meeting constituent needs, how can citizens make informed choices about who should govern?” the study authors write.

It adds that the digital conversion has allowed non-journalistic entities such as Facebook and Google to siphon away advertising dollars.

“That first draft of history is not being written – it has completely disappeared,” Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, told the New York Times. “That’s what is so chilling about the crisis.”


There is some hope and most of it rests online.

It is relatively easy and inexpensive to create a website and put information on it.

However, it’s a whole other matter to make a profit.

AOL learned that the hard way with its noble effort to create a system of community news sites.

Tim Armstrong, the online company’s chief executive, started in 2007. The idea was simple. Create hundreds of websites in smaller and suburban communities to report on local news.

Eventually, websites from Livermore Patch in California to Long Island Patch in New York sprung up.

The sites presented “hyper-local” news to communities by covering city council meetings, school functions, new business openings and community fundraisers.

From a content standpoint, it worked really well.

From a financial vantage point, it failed.

Unable to turn a profit, AOL sold Patch and its 900 sites to the Hale Global investment firm in 2014. That company laid off 90 percent of the Patch editors and kept a skeleton crew. Many of the sites are still around, but the local news component is nowhere near what it was. Much of the postings now are submitted by local residents or by businesses as paid content.

So, how can a digital news operation survive?

One of the country’s best-known newspapers may be the model for the future.

A 2019 story in Time magazine described how the New York Times has made digital content popular and profitable.

At that time, the newspaper’s site had nearly 5 million paid subscribers, three times its print peak. The digital side reached 8.8 million subscribers in early 2023 while print subscriptions fell to 730,000. The newspaper hopes to hit 15 million online subscribers by 2027. The newspaper’s revenues rose 11 percent in 2022 with profits increasing slightly from the year before to nearly $350 million.

Time magazine credits Times Publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger with bringing the newspaper into the digital age beginning in 2013. Sulzberger hired top talent and insisted on good journalism.

The Times was one of the first information websites to demand that people pay to read its material. Sulzberger and the other executives realized the old formula of relying on ads to support a newspaper wasn’t going to work. They needed to lean heavily on subscription revenue to flourish.

It was a bold strategy that worked because Sulzberger made it his goal to “produce journalism worth paying for.”

The Times also melds its digital presence by hosting the popular podcast The Daily, which spends 20 minutes a day five days a week taking apart the day’s top issues. The audio broadcasts usually feature Times journalists. The Daily went from nearly 6 million downloads in February 2017 to 48 million in June 2019. In September 2020, the podcast reported it was getting 4 million downloads per day, which equates to 120 million per month.

Sulzberger told Time that he wants to cultivate relationships “with a whole different section of readers, by meeting them where they are, in the form that they want to be met at.”

In May 2023, the Times hit a major milestone in that goal when it reached an agreement with Google in which the newspaper will receive $100 million over a 3-year period from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to feature some of the Times’ content on Google platforms.


So, how can we duplicate the New York Times digital success?

Researchers say there are a number of ways. Most of them require smashing old models and thinking along different lines.

The University of North Carolina website calls for a concerted effort to maintain a “robust news ecosystem.”

They recommend five courses of action:

*Investing in “human capital” such as journalists and sales representatives.

*Linking business models to their specific community.

*Diversifying sources of income while moving away from print advertising.

*Knowing when to compete and when to collaborate.

*Having a strategy to transform at least a third of your business every five years.

The UNC researchers also say governments should award grants and other funding to news outlets that cover underserved communities. They urged foundations and philanthropic organizations to do the same thing.

The authors of the PEN America report have a similar action plan.

They advocate for “a radical rethinking for local journalism as a public good.”

They also recommend a “concerted action” and the investment of billions of dollars into local journalism by public, private and philanthropic organizations.

Among other actions, the study authors suggest an ad revenue tax on tech giants to compensate local outlets for the journalism those tech giants use as well as to fund community journalism.

They also recommend that individuals subscribe and donate to local news outlets as well as inform local journalists about stories that need to be covered.

There are groups that are helping news operations to flourish online.

The Institute for Nonprofit News is assisting more than 240 independent media organizations that are nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to public service. The institute helps these ventures with funding, setting up a business model, providing training and establishing partnerships.

The Google News Initiative has a stated goal of “helping journalism thrive in a digital age.” The initiative organizers say they focus on quality journalism, innovation, an open digital news ecosystem and collaboration.

The Media Deserts Project organized by Ohio University has started keeping track of the zip codes that do not have a reliable source of local information.

And Report for America hires journalists and places them in local journalism outlets.


In the meantime, newspapers in smaller towns continue to cover their communities.

On January 1, 2023, for example, the Niagara Gazette had a story about the plans of a local non-profit organization to develop parks in the village of Youngstown.

That next day, The Record posted an article listing some of the new businesses, including Ugly Doughnuts, coming to the northern New Jersey region.

That same week the Charleston Gazette-Mail published a story on an upcoming to help people in West Virginia navigate healthcare coverage options.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette printed a report on the changes in the local cuisine scene in 2023.

The Flint Journal published an article on a local foundation that has received grant money to restore two condemned landmark buildings.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News posted a story previewing the annual Farm Show in town.

And Sara Ganim?

She went to work for CNN after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her stories on the Sandusky child molestation case. In 2019, she joined the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, where she helps college journalists develop investigative reporting projects. In 2020, Ganim made her first independent film, No Defense, a documentary about water pollution. She now is also a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York as well as the host of the podcast Dear Media.