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

Tag: Northwestern University

A new report finds that news deserts are spreading — but there are bright spots, too

Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio

The release of a new report by Penelope Muse Abernathy on the state of local news is always a big deal. For 15 years now, she’s been tracking the extent of the crisis, and has done more than anyone to popularize the phrase “news deserts,” which describes communities without a source of reliable news and information. This week Abernathy, now at Northwestern University’s Medill School, issued “The State of Local News 2023.” It’s a downbeat report, although there are a few bright spots. Here’s a key finding:

The data and insights collected and analyzed in this 2023 report on The State of Local News paint the picture of a country and society increasingly divided between the journalism-have’s — mostly residents in more affluent cities and suburban areas where alternative news sources are gaining traction — and the journalism have-not’s, those in economically struggling and traditionally underserved metro, suburban and rural communities. This partitioning of our citizenry poses a far-reaching crisis for our democracy as it simultaneously struggles with political polarization, a lack of civic engagement and the proliferation of misinformation and information online.

Before I continue, a disclosure: Abernathy, who’s been a guest on our “What Works” podcast about the future of local news, was kind enough to provide a pre-publication endorsement of the book that Ellen Clegg and I have written, “What Works in Community News,” which comes out in January.

Abernathy’s principal collaborator on the new report is Sarah Stonbely, director of Medill’s State of Local News Project, who I interviewed in 2022 when she was at the Center for Cooperative Media, part of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

If you’d like a good summary of Abernathy and Stonbely’s report, I recommend Sarah Fischer’s overview in Axios, which leads with the prediction that the U.S. will have lost one third of its newspapers by the end of 2024.

The cleavage between affluent urban and suburban areas and less affluent urban and rural areas is one of the major challenges Abernathy and Stonbely identify, and it’s definitely something that Ellen and I noticed in our reporting for “What Works in Community News.” I recall asking folks at the start-up Colorado Sun why they were trying to stretch their resources to cover stories across the state rather than focusing on Denver. The answer: the Denver metro area was already fairly well served despite massive cuts at The Denver Post, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. By contrast, there was very little news coverage in the more rural parts of the state.

As Abernathy and Stonbely put it: “The footprint for alternative local news outlets — approximately 550 digital-only sites, 720 ethnic media organizations and 215 public broadcasting stations — remains very small and centered around metro areas.” Indeed, this chart tells a rather harrowing tale. As you can see, people who live in news deserts are considerably less affluent and less educated than the national average.

The report also includes a section called “Bright Spots in the Local News Landscape.” Although the interactive map is a little hard to navigate, I can see that several projects that Ellen and I profile in “What Works in Community News” are included, such as NJ Spotlight News, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Texas Tribune, The Colorado Sun and the Daily Memphian.

The report also highlights The Boston Globe as one of its good-news stories, observing that, under the ownership of John and Linda Henry, the paper has thrived on the strength of its digital subscriptions. In a sidebar, Tom Brown, the Globe’s vice president of consumer analytics, tells Abernathy that digital growth continues, although at a slower rate than during the COVID pandemic. Retention is down slightly, too. “We are nonetheless still seeing overall strong retention,” Brown says, “and we are investing in several areas of the business with the goal of engaging subscribers more and, in particular, our new subscribers.”

Editor Nancy Barnes adds that though the Globe is ramping up its coverage of the Greater Boston area as well as in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, it can’t fill the gap created by the gutting and closure of local weekly papers at the hands of Gannett, the giant newspaper chain that until recently dominated coverage of the Boston suburbs and exurbs.

“Having returned to Boston after many years away, I have been stunned by the decimation of local newspapers across Massachusetts and New England,” Barnes says. “However, our coverage strategy is not tied to specific Gatehouse newspaper communities [a reference to Gannett’s predecessor company]. We cover greater Boston in depth, but we don’t have the bandwidth to be the local news source for everyone.”

This week’s Medill report is the first of a multi-part series. Future chapters will be released over the next few weeks and into January.

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Zombie subscribers are not the worst problem for a digital news source to have

Photo (cc) 2012 by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti

You may have heard about a new problem facing news publishers as they continue to transition to reader revenue — “digital zombies,” or paid-up subscribers who rarely or never visit. A study at Northwestern University “found that 49% of subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month,” according to Mark Jacob of the university’s Local News Initiative.

I would argue that this isn’t the worst problem to have, and that it may be more of an artifact of our ability to measure everything in the digital space than it is something new and threatening. Back in the days of print-only, we simply didn’t know how much time people spent with the newspaper. Oh, sure, there were surveys, but you can be sure that most respondents would want to tell researchers that yes, of course, they read every word of that seven-part series on pension reform because, you know, it’s very, very important.

The fact is that people signed up for newspaper delivery out of habit. Some spent a lot of time with the news. Some read only the sports section. Some read the funnies. And some might have only picked up the paper so they could clip out the Wednesday food coupons.

If a digital subscription is cheap enough, you might sign up so that you’ll have access on the rare occasions that you need it and so you can support the work those news organizations are doing. I’m not going to identify the news sources, but I can think of one that I gladly pay even though I only look at it once or twice a year and another that is, at best a tertiary read. Of course, I understand that I work in news and so my habits may be different from others’. But I don’t think that having customers who pay without reading is all that terrible unless they suddenly start canceling en masse.

“Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on,” writes Jacob, adding that publishers are trying several strategies to reanimate their zombies, including targeted newsletters, better recommendation systems and the like.

According to the Better News website, Gannett’s Arizona Republic found a direct correlation between lack of engagement and canceled subscription — 50% of canceled subscriptions came from the 42% of subscribers who were visiting the paper’s website less than once a month.

And yes, it’s important to try to keep those customers. Publishing strong journalism and making sure that even your zombies are aware of it really matters. But most papers offer steep discounts to new customers. For instance, you can get a three-month digital-only subscription to the Republic for just $1, which the paper touts as a 97% savings.

If I’m doing the math correctly, that comes to about $32 a month once the discount expires. That means the Republic and others who offer such discounts, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, have a few months to make their case.

Or maybe the zombies will act like many people did before the internet — keep getting the digital paper out of habit whether they read it or not.

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