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Sarah Stultz: Newspapers still bring valuable information

Nose for News by Sarah Stultz


Many of us have heard the term “food desert” — areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. But what about “news deserts?”

According to a new report published by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the United States has lost one-fourth — 2,100 — of its newspapers over the last 15 years, leaving at least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 but did not have one at the beginning of 2020.

During the same time frame, half of newspaper journalist positions have been eliminated, leaving many of the country’s remaining newspapers a smaller version of what they used to be.

The report said of the nation’s 3,143 counties, more than 200 of them have no local newspaper, and half of the nation’s counties — 1,540 — have only one newspaper. Also noteworthy is that two-thirds of the nation’s counties no longer have a daily newspaper.

These gaps now facing the nation in newspapers have created what the report defined as news deserts: communities “where residents have very limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feed democracy at the grassroots level.”

I found it interesting to read in the report that most of the communities that have lost a newspaper are struggling economically and that residents of counties with no newspaper, or only one newspaper, tend to be  poorer, older and less educated than the average American.

And back to the “food desert” term — the report found that half of the residents living in a county without a newspaper also live in a food desert. Many of these residents are less likely to be able to afford subscriptions, do not have access to high-speed internet in their homes or work and are often less informed and less likely to vote.

The report found the South, which has some of the poorest states in the country, has the most counties without newspapers, and states in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions were most likely to have counties with only one local newspaper.

Despite the challenges newspapers face, studies from researchers at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Minnesota have found that newspapers still produce more local stories that address a critical information need than any other news outlet.

The report referenced a Duke study of 100 mid-sized communities in 2016 that found that newspapers accounted for 60% of stories produced in a typical week that addressed a critical information need, while by comparison, only 15% of the stories produced by television, radio or online sites were both locally produced and met a critical information need.

A UNC study in 2019 found that newspapers also tended to provide a greater variety of stories that address a critical information need.

This year above all has shown the value newspapers have as the nation has faced not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a suffering economy and civil unrest on top of all of the other day-to-day challenges and successes communities face.

Newspapers have provided and will continue to provide critical information — not only for the health and safety of our readers, but also to help the community make informed decisions. Whether it’s in-person or through Zoom meetings, it is the newspaper reporters who have continued to attend regular meetings of local governments and who provide daily accounts of local law enforcement reports.

Newspapers also celebrate the achievements in the community and bring together readers in a time where community-togetherness has never been more needed.

I ask that you consider this quote from Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, that stresses the importance of newspapers in our nation: “Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Sarah Stultz is the managing editor of the Tribune. Her column appears every Wednesday.