In the internet’s early days, it seemed to have the potential to crush traditional print media. But its impact has turned out to be more nuanced.
The internet has instead been a boon for some publications with a national audience. The New York Times has never had as many subscribers or readers — or employed as many journalists — as it does today. The Atlantic, The Washington Post and some others are also thriving.
It’s at the local level that the digital revolution has been as destructive as feared.
Hundreds of local news organizations have folded, as their advertising revenue disappears, and the pandemic is exacerbating the crisis. At least 60 local newsrooms have closed since March, according to Poynter. Some of them were more than a century old, like The Eureka Sentinel, in Nevada; The Mineral Wells Index, in Texas; and The Morehead News, in Kentucky.
This isn’t a story of creative destruction, in which nimble new entrants replace older companies.
Often, nothing replaces a shuttered newsroom, leaving communities without any independent information about local government, schools and businesses. (A recent Times investigation found that some partisan groups have begun posing as local publishers, trying to pass off political propaganda as news.)
There are consequences for society.
When a community’s newspaper closes, voter turnout and cross-party voting tend to decline, while political corruption and government waste rise, academic research has found. A democracy struggles to function when its citizens can’t stay informed.
What can be done? Eventually, savvy entrepreneurs may figure out how to make local news profitable. But several have tried in recent years, without success. For the foreseeable future, the only reliable answer seems to involve philanthropy. Americans have long accepted that the arts, higher education and organized religion all depend on charitable giving. Local journalism is now in the same category.
“We need philanthropists across the country to embrace robust local journalism. If you care about education, you need to worry if school boards and charter boards are covered. And if you care about the environment, you should make sure reporters like Ken Ward Jr. are covering coal country in West Virginia.”
Sarabeth Berman, the chief executive of the American Journalism Project, which funds local news sites, told me.
I decided to write about this topic this morning, because today is Giving Tuesday, when people take a break from online shopping to focus on charitable giving. If you are worried about the state of local news, you can donate through NewsMatch, which matches donations to local publications, or to your local public-radio affiliate.
If you want different giving ideas, try my colleague Nicholas Kristof’s more global suggestions or The Times’s Neediest Cases Fund, which focuses on economic hardship.