The report says there were 6,377 newspapers in the country at the end of May, compared to 8,891 in 2005. While the pandemic has not caused the reckoning that some in the industry feared, 360 newspapers have closed since the end of 2019, all but 24 of which were weekly newspapers serving small communities.
Northwestern estimates that the papers employed about 75,000 journalists in 2006 and have now dwindled to 31,000. The paper’s annual revenue has fallen from $50 billion to $21 billion over the same period.
Although philanthropists and politicians are paying more attention to this issue, the factors that led to the collapse of the industry’s advertising model have not changed. Encouraging growth in the digital-only news sector in recent years has not been enough to offset general trends, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, Medill Visiting Professor and lead author of the report.
The report says that many of the digital-only sites focus on individual issues and are clustered in or near major cities, next to charities that provide most of their funding.
News deserts are on the rise: a report estimates that about 70 million Americans live in a county that either doesn’t have a local news organization or only has one.
“What is really at stake in this is our own democracy and our social and community cohesion,” Abernathy said.
The number of genuine “daily” papers that are printed and distributed seven days a week is also declining; The report says that 40 of the country’s top 100 newspapers publish digital-only versions at least once a week. Inflation is likely to accelerate the print phase, said Tim Franklin, director of the Medill Local News Initiative.
The report says that much of the industry’s churn is due to the growth of newspaper chains, including new regional chains that have bought hundreds of newspapers in small to medium markets.
Less than a third of the country’s 5,147 weekly newspapers and just a dozen of the 150 major city and regional dailies are currently owned and operated by local governments, Medill said.
Abernathy’s report pointed to a handful of “local heroes” to counter the pessimism that the raw numbers evoke. One of them is Sharon Burton, publisher and editor Adare County Community Voice in Kentucky, where she encourages her staff to engage in aggressive journalism and also successfully lobbies for more mail subsidies for rural newspapers.