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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