Want to save democracy? Support local news.

The dramatically accelerating collapse of local newspapers in America and the threat it poses to our democracy is starkly revealed in a new landmark report titled “The State of Local News 2023,” produced by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

This extensive report, with more than 400 interactive graphics and interviews with 9,000 news outlets across every corner of the country, maps the expansion of  news deserts, a bleak terrain we know well here at GroundTruth as our flagship service program Report for America works everyday to counter it by placing reporters in local newsrooms to cover underserved communities and beats.

Here in America, at a time to give thanks, I want to thank the Report for America corps for filling so many gaps left by an industry in decline. I want to thank all 600 of the reporters we have placed in more than 300 newsrooms across all 50 states since we launched, and express gratitude for the public service they provide every day to their communities. And I want to thank our amazing GroundTruth team for the work they do every day both for Report for America and for its sister program Report for the World to confront the worldwide crisis in local news.

Most of all, on this Thanksgiving Day, we want to thank you for following our work through this newsletter and for giving generously to our non-profit organization. Without your support, this important work just would not be happening. We hope you will consider giving on this Thanksgiving when a generous donor has offered to match donations up to $200,000.  It’s never been a better time to give!

As Kim Kleman, our Executive Director of Report for America said, “Seeing the difference a single corps member can make in a newsroom and community keeps our team going despite all the bad news about the state of local news.”

Kleman, who is just finishing up the selection process for the next cohort of host newsrooms which will be announced next month, added, “What we need now is for more people and institutions to understand that local newsrooms are in crisis, that that threatens our democracy, and that newsrooms need their support.”

Northwestern’s report highlights the urgency of our work and the importance of your support like never before. Among its key findings:

  • Newspapers are continuing to vanish at an average rate of more than two a week. Since 2005, the country has lost almost 2,900 newspapers, including more than 130 confirmed closings or mergers that resulted in reduced local coverage over the past year.
  • Residents in more than half of U.S. counties have no, or very limited, access to a reliable local news source — either print, digital or broadcast. There are 204 counties without any local news outlet and 1,562 counties served with only one remaining local news source, invariably a weekly newspaper and too many of them are hanging by a thread.
  • The report places 228 of those single-news source counties on a “Watch List” — at high risk of losing its last remaining local news outlet. Most of these watch list counties are located in high poverty areas in the South or the Midwest, and many serve communities with significant Black, Hispanic or Native American populations.
  • In addition to losing almost a third of its newspapers, the country has lost almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists — 43,000 — since 2005.

This is a collapse of an industry on par with the death of the steel or coal industries in the 1970s, but I would argue the demise of local journalism is more dire for the country. Yes, steel and coal plants built a middle class that seems to be vanishing and they forged the raw materials that built cities, but local newspapers provided the very foundation for our democracy. Since the beginning of the country, local newspapers have served communities by providing the shared sets of trusted facts that allow all of us to come together to make big decisions; to vote on who will represent us; to hold those who do accountable; and to celebrate the stories of heroes and villains which can bind us all together. As these local news organizations whither or disappear, we end up more polarized and pulled apart than we have been since the Civil War.

And if you want to catch a glimpse of the impact that the death of a newspaper can have on a city, a place to start is in the faded steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, the largest city in America to see its daily newspaper shuttered.

Four years ago, I traveled to Youngstown and wrote about the last press run at that city’s legendary newspaper, The Vindicator.

I stood in the press room with Todd Franko, who had long served as the Editor of the Vindicator and who was just about to join us in a leadership role at Report for America, and we watched as the presses slowly came to a stop and a 150-year tradition ended. Franko tried to hold back tears along with scores of reporters and editors who lined the railings of the pressroom on that fateful day in the end of the summer of 2019 when 140 of  The Vindicator staff lost their jobs. Back then, we were shocked to learn that 1800 local newspapers had also closed since 2005. Since then, this same process has repeated another 1,100 times,as the unraveling of the industry gathers pace.

The last press run at The Vindicator on August 31, 2019 (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

I caught up with Franko, who has moved on from our team but is still in the good fight to save newspapers as Executive Director of the Georgia News Collaborative, in Youngstown where he and his wife and three boys are still living. Just as we feared back in 2019, Youngstown has suffered from the loss of its daily newspaper. An edition of the paper is still printed inside the Warren Tribune Chronicle, but Franko and others say it is just not the same. Without a daily watchdog and a place where the daily stories of a community are shared in the voice of that city’s own newspaper, the people who live there suffer and have “an unmet hunger,” as Franko put it.

Asked how the ongoing collapse of local news compares to the death of the steel industry in Youngstown back in the late 1970s, when Youngstown lost 50,000 jobs over the space of a few years as U.S. Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed their operations, Franko replied, “Lost local news is not as apparent to a community as lost steel jobs. Untold stories don’t sit like unemployed humans at home on a chair or amongst pals at a tavern wondering what’s next. Untold stories sneak up later on a community, like cancer, and leave you asking ‘what happened?’”