By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Alice Dreger

Medill, after prodding, begins updating and correcting its map of news deserts

The Medill map of news deserts from November 2023

If there is an ur-source of data about the extent of the local news crisis, it is surely the map of news deserts compiled by journalism researcher Penelope Abernathy. First at the University of North Carolina and more recently at Northwestern University’s Medill School, Abernathy has produced perhaps the single most influential work on the local news crisis.

Ellen Clegg and I have cited her topline numbers — 2,900 newspapers, mostly weeklies, closed since 2005; 43,000 journalism jobs lost over the same period — countless times in talking about our book, “What Works on Community News.” Abernathy is also a professional friend who was kind enough to blurb our book and who’s appeared on our “What Works” podcast.

Compiling the sort of data needed to produce a reliable presentation like the one put together by Abernathy and her colleagues, though, is incredibly hard work. A lot of it depends on the methodology you use. New projects constantly come online; others flicker out. As such, I’ve tended to regard her study as most useful when viewed from 40,000 feet, less useful when you take a look at county-by-county results.

The most recent Medill data is from November 2023. Alice Dreger, who writes the blog Local News Blues, has been pointing out flaws in the numbers all year. Among other things: The Baltimore Sun, a legacy for-profit newspaper, and The Baltimore Banner, a digital nonprofit, were originally excluded; East Lansing Info, a sizable nonprofit in Michigan that Dreger helped found, was not on the list; and several projects serving Black communities, such as  AfroLA and Baltimore Witness, were missing.

I’ve noticed problems as well, especially with startups that were founded within the last couple of years in response to Gannett’s decimation of its weekly newspapers in Greater Boston. Some may have popped up after Medill’s deadline.

Now, Dreger reports, Medill is starting to make corrections after initially being unresponsive. That’s good. In fact, I would suggest that the Medill report and others like it should always be regarded as works in progress, subject to additions, deletions and other edits. I maintain a database of independent local news organizations and news-oriented public access stations in Massachusetts, and I’m always making changes to it.

I don’t think the problems Dreger found detract from the overall value of the Medill database. I do think it’s important to regard it as a living, breathing representation of the local news situation across the United States, valid in its essentials but always subject to change and updates. And kudos to Dreger for getting the ball rolling.

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A local news activist lashes out at big funders: ‘Psst! Look under your seat!’

An actual news desert. Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio.

As nonprofit news becomes an increasingly important part of community journalism, there’s a rift developing between large foundations and small publishers who say that they’re being left behind. Sophie Culpepper wrote about this recently for Nieman Lab, and a new organization called the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets has been founded to represent those overlooked media outlets.

The most recent development on this front is a scorching piece at Local News Blues by Alice Dreger, an author, historian and a founder and former publisher of East Lansing Info. Dreger takes note of the recent Knight Media Forum, whose organizers she describes as being more interested in developing software tools of dubious merit than in providing operating funds to hyperlocal publishers. She writes:

The KMF has always been a towel-slapping, country club locker room with waiters coming by to offer bacon-wrapped shrimp, but this year was particularly troubling. As local news publishers are desperately trying to keep from laying off staff and closing up shop, representatives of the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and their joint Press Forward venture got up on stage to assure the world they’re going to save us.

“We are in it with you, and together we will crack the code of sustainability,” said Maribel Pérez Wadsworth, the president of the Knight Foundation. You know, the Knight Foundation — the behemoth sitting comfortably on a multi-billion-dollar endowment.

Psst, Maribel! Look under your seat!

She also quotes Nancy West of InDepthNH as saying that Knight seems more interested in artificial intelligence than in paying for news. West, a past guest on our podcast, “What Works,” promptly republished Dreger’s piece. That led to a response from John Palfrey, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, which is the lead foundation in Press Forward. “Thanks for the tag and the feedback,” he wrote on Twitter/X. “I know the team will bear these critiques in mind as grantmaking ramps up.”

The bottom line is that there isn’t enough national money for everyone. Dreger notes that Press Forward has decided to make a priority of funding projects that serve communities of color, which I think makes a lot of sense, even if that leaves other projects behind. Ultimately, nonprofit news outlets have to educate philanthropic organizations in their own backyards that quality journalism is as worthy of funding as youth programs and the arts. And yes, I realize that’s easier to do in some places than in others.

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