By 2024, more than one-third of U.S. newspapers that existed in 2005 will have closed, according to a new report from Penny Abernathy and the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University.
“The significant loss of local news outlets in poorer and underserved communities poses a crisis for our democracy,” said Medill visiting professor Penny Abernathy, a co-author of this year’s report who has been studying local news deserts for more than a decade. “So, it is very important that we identify the places most at risk, while simultaneously understanding what is working in other communities.”
In the last decade, the U.S. has lost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists, which amounts to 43,000, while more than half of U.S. counties now have no access or very limited access to local news. So how do we stop the bleeding?
Watershed Voice launched in April 2020 in response to Three Rivers’ legacy newspaper the Three Rivers Commercial-News downsizing its staff, with myself included among those cuts, and transitioning from printing six days a week down to two. The Commercial is still fighting the good fight, but since 2020 it has changed ownership, and is currently printing just one day a week.
Based on the demographics and economics of current news desert counties, researchers at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University estimate that 228 counties are at an elevated risk of becoming news deserts in the next five years. Most of those “Watch List” counties are located in high-poverty areas in the South and Midwest, and many serve communities with significant African American, Hispanic and Native American populations.
St. Joseph County is not yet on that list, and we hope to keep it that way, as one of the six digital nonprofit newsrooms in the state of Michigan producing local news. As we near the four-year mark of producing quality, independent public service journalism, this next bit is important: Abernathy also noted that 50 percent of local digital startups don’t survive the five-year startup phase.
There are approximately 550 digital-only local news sites in the U.S., many of which launched in the past decade, but unlike Watershed, they are mostly clustered in metro areas. In the past five years, the number of local digital startups has roughly equaled the number that shuttered.
As we end this year, and embark upon a new one, we’re asking for your help to ensure that Watershed Voice has the funding it needs to not only exist another year but for years to come.
As you may have already heard, we’re currently in the midst of a NewsMatch fundraising campaign through the end of 2023. NewsMatch will double your donation, up to $1,000 per individual through December 31. We can earn up to $13,000 in matching dollars, which means Watershed Voice can raise $26,000 in total. Whether this will be your first donation, or a contribution over and above your paid subscription, every dollar counts, and we’re almost halfway there with roughly six weeks left to go.
So what do you say, will you help Watershed Voice do its part to rebuild the U.S.’s news ecosystem with a donation today?
Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor and publisher of Watershed Voice.