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How the decline of newspapers creates ‘news deserts’ around the country

Layoffs at established newspaper chains and digital upstarts alike reflect the difficulty of the news business. The closing of local newsrooms can create "news deserts," areas with limited access to news outlets. Judy Woodruff talks to Steve Cavendish, editor of the Nashville Banner, and Penny Abernathy, chair of journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The past couple of weeks are showing once again just how tough the news business is right now, with layoffs by digital upstarts and by the country's largest newspaper chain, Gannett.

    BuzzFeed laid off 15 percent of its staff, while The Huffington Post and Yahoo News cut hundreds of jobs under their new owner, Verizon.

    Many in the field are more worried that a hedge fund-backed group known for gutting newsrooms might buy Gannett. That would potentially be an even bigger hit to local coverage nationwide.

    All of this has led to the growth of so-called news deserts, places where there's limited access to news outlets.

    For a look at the fallout from all this, we're joined now by Steve Cavendish. He's editor of The Nashville Banner. That's a nonprofit news start-up that he's in the process of relaunching after the paper by the same name folded in 1998. And Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina, she's written a major report about the shrinking of local news organizations and how it increases our country's political polarization.

    Welcome to both of you. Thank you for joining us.

    Steve Cavendish, I'm going to start with you.

    You wrote the other day that what's going on right now for journalists is a bloodbath. Is it really that bad?

  • Steve Cavendish:

    Well, it has been over a long period of time.

    It's over the last — over the last couple of decades, we have seen journalism jobs around the country being cleaved off at a rate like either coal miners or steelworkers or fishermen. And those are not what you would call thriving industries.

    Journalism has had revenue problems for years, and we're starting to see, as print is really sort of — is sort of wiped out, that the conversion over to digital for many of these properties, many of these newspapers just isn't the same.

    And so we're seeing with it a lot of jobs lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Penny Abernathy, you agree it's that bad, and, if so, what's driving this?

  • Penny Abernathy:

    Well, I think there are two things we need to look at.

    One is the total loss of newspapers, because newspapers are often the prime, if not the sole source of news and information, especially in small and mid-sized communities. So, over the last decade-and-a-half, we have seen 1,800 newspapers disappear off the landscape of the U.S.

    But there's also the equally troubling situation that we have with the surviving newspapers, where we have lost more than half of the newspaper newsroom journalists that we had just in 2008. We're calling that the rise of the ghost newspaper, in which papers are basically shells of their former selves.

    And, as Steve suggests, it's being driven by a couple of things. One is the rapid decline of advertising, especially print advertising, and the inability of news organizations to make up for that in any kind of digital revenue, be that subscription revenue, be that advertising revenue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Steve Cavendish, a lot of conversation about the role of these organizations that have become so powerful over the last decade, Facebook, Google. What is their role in all this?

  • Steve Cavendish:

    Well, as newspapers have tried to become digital operations, and tried to sell digital advertising, the problem is that they get into these markets, and Google and Facebook have, between the two of them, about 80 percent of the digital ad market.

    And so what's left pushes — really pushes down on what they can make as — what you can make as an organization. And so the print dollars that many news chains have walked away from have been replaced by digital dimes or even digital pennies. And that replacement is reflected in the number of jobs that have been lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Penny Abernathy, what does that mean for news consumers, people who have counted on whether it's a newspaper or something else for news and information?

  • Penny Abernathy:

    Well, it means the rise of news deserts, in which residents in communities, hundreds of communities, even thousands, in this country have limited, very limited access to the sort of news and information that's been the lifeblood of our democracy, everything from when and where to vote, to topics such as education, health, emergency and safety information that we need.

    The FCC put out in — earlier in this decade a list of eight topics that they considered to be critical information needs for communities. As we have looked at newspapers and the content that comes out of newspapers, as well as digital start-up sites, we often find that some essential information that we need as citizens and just residents to make wise decisions, we don't have access to anymore.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Steve Cavendish, how do you see that playing out in Tennessee? What are people missing now?

  • Steve Cavendish:

    Well, so, take for example, The Nashville Banner, which was the afternoon paper here and where I got my start in the early '90s, was sold to the Gannett paper here in town, The Tennessean, and closed.

    Well, they took about a third of that newsroom into and combined it into The Tennessean's staff. So you had about 180 journalists. That number is now less than 70.

    And what does that mean? It means that, you know, large swathes of what was once covered, of courts, of institutions, of major kind of stories just don't get covered. And it affects everything, from the cover of health care, which is a big industry here, to high school sports, to politics.

    In the last set of elections where you had a — we had a Senate and governor's race here back in the fall, you had basically one reporter covering those races each for Gannett-owned dailies in three of the four biggest markets in Tennessee.

    And so you're seeing fewer and fewer people covering things. The statehouse reporting is kind of a crisis across the country. In Tennessee, there were 35 people covering the state legislature and the government, state government, at one time about three decades ago. That number is now 10, and, really, a couple of those are specialists.

    So you only have eight people covering a $37 billion — a $37 billion state government and the legislature.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have seen that in state after state.

    And, Penny Abernathy, it's so important for us to highlight this, because, here in Washington, you look at, say, a presidential news conference, and you see a lot of journalists. You don't get the sense, looking at Washington, what has happened around the country.

  • Penny Abernathy:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    But I want to ask you something you have pointed out.

    And that's how all this contributes to the political polarization in the country. How is that happening?

  • Penny Abernathy:

    Well, one of the things that we found through our study of looking at where people — communities have lost newspapers and where they are living with severely diminished newspapers is that it tends to — news deserts tend to coalesce around areas that are much poorer, much less well-educated, and much older than other types of communities.

    That can be communities that are middle — inner-city neighborhoods. That can be suburbs around metro areas. And it can be what we call the flyover regions of the country, the rural areas that are out there.

    I live in a — what you would call a news desert, the Congressional 9th, where we still do not have a House of Representatives member because of alleged voter fraud.

    It is — and it is a classic news desert, where, in 20 years ago or so, you could have gotten ample coverage of the congressional race through three different newspapers, the Charlotte, the Raleigh and the Fayetteville paper, and it is — there are no newspapers that circulate in my county now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What determines, quickly, Penny Abernathy, whether this is going to turn around anytime soon?

  • Penny Abernathy:

    Well, I'm most optimistic that if you have a publisher and an owner in an area that has a good economic foundation, that if the publisher is both creative and disciplined, that you can turn it around. We have seen several examples of that.

    Where I am most concerned is on the low-income areas, which I do not see a viable for-profit economic model emerging. And I'm hoping we can begin to get media funders to begin to look at these overlooked areas, because it's critical for our society. It has political, social and economic implications that are long-term.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to focus on this.

    Penny Abernathy, Steve Cavendish, thank you both.

  • Steve Cavendish:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Penny Abernathy:

    Thank you.

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