PENNY ABERNATHY’S RESEARCH ON mapping
“news deserts” is
regularly cited in national newspapers to call attention to the economic
crisis facing local newsrooms. But the local news crisis is complicated, and
a single citation can’t tell the whole story.
CJR spoke with Abernathy about measuring the crisis and the complicated
nature of telling local stories at the national level. This conversation has
been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: Your work has been cited nationally so many times over the past year.
What do you think people are getting right about your research, and what you
think people might be missing?
Penny Abernathy: This
is a really complicated story. There’s so much nuance that gets lost in
everything that actually makes it into the national press. You have the
problem that you have with a simple math equation: you tend to take an
average. Or, instead, you focus on a specific thing. It’s really important
to look at a very vibrant and multi-layered ecosystem. At the very top, you
have the national newspapers. In between, you have the state and regional
newspapers. And at the very bottom, you have the very local newspaper, and
each one of them is facing a different problem, economically.
The paths forward will differ, depending on the economic viability of a
market, the size of a market, the demographics of a market, access to
digital. If you’re going to transition from a legacy method of distribution,
such as print, to a vibrant and sustainable digital model, you’ve got to
have the infrastructure in place and an educated public that knows how to
We do not have a robust ecosystem. We have this poverty compared to what we
had even a decade ago, regardless of whether you measure the loss of news
organizations, or whether you measure the loss of reporters, or the loss of
If you are NPR, for instance, and you have added a thousand reporters, the
real question is where those extra reporters go. Do you put them in specific
markets that don’t have a news organization? Or do you try to recreate the
investigative and contextual and analytical reporting on a regional and
state level that has been diminished over the past decade? But when you’ve
lost thirty-eight thousand journalists over the last decade, you have to be
very strategic. And even though 96 percent of the country has access to NPR,
there are certain areas that still don’t. How do you get through that last
mile, especially when you’re looking at places where maybe only half to
two-thirds of the people have access to internet and less than a fourth have
access to high speed internet?
A lot of the national focus on your work centers around the loss of
newspapers, which is a focus of your news deserts map. But you’ve looked at
more than that. In terms of measurement, how has your research evolved?
I started tracking newspapers. Because there had been a lot of research over
the last five decades that had shown that newspapers were often the prime—if
not the sole—source of news and information, especially in small and midsize
markets. Since then, I have started tracking digital sites. More recently,
I’ve added things like television and broadcast, specifically looking to see
what public broadcasting is done as it tries to fill the gap. And I’ve added
ethnic newspapers as well. There are really several ways you need to look at
the loss of news. Whether you call the loss a “news desert” or “news
poverty”, what we’re experiencing is the loss of the quantity of news
stories that we used to have, and the quality. If you lose a local
newspaper, you’re losing the person who shows up at the town council or
school board meeting. If you lose reporters—which we have, in huge numbers,
at the state and regional level—you’re both losing the quantity of stories
and the scope of stories.
Now, on our homepage, there’s a Rate
Your Local News function.
What we’re trying to get people to do is take the eight categories that the
FCC identified in the last decade as being critical information needs, the
information we need in order to have a good quality of life and make wise
decisions that will affect not only our lives but those future generations.
We don’t just say, “Are you getting news coverage?” We will ask you what
you’re getting. Is it more than a meeting time? Does it have a byline? Does
it tell you what was important in the meeting? And why? As early as 2018,
Pew Research picked up on the fact that more than 50 percent of the people
they interviewed found a lot less relevant local news available over a five
year period. So in many ways, people know it’s not there. But they don’t
know why it’s not there.
Your work has shown how long this has been a problem. With habit being such
an important part of news consumption, for people who haven’t had good local
news coverage for a long time, how do you get them back into a habit that
hasn’t been available to them?
I think that is the question. At the state and regional level, you have had
a huge diminishment of the number of journalists covering issues there. At
the same time, you’ve had state and regional newspapers try increasing the
cost of a yearly subscription. The downward trend is almost a direct mirror
image as you go upward on the subscription price.
And what you end up finding in your news feed is really not local at all.
Your map distinguishes between counties with one newspaper and counties with
none. How important is it to have more than one option? What does a healthy
local news ecosystem look like?
In the best of circumstances, you have a diversity of news outlets. Because
there’s no way one news organization can cover everything. Any news
organization—whether you’re talking about an ethnic news organization, a
nonprofit, or a typical legacy television or newspaper—is the result of the
experiences and the outlooks and the training of the people who run it.
They’re going to have different priorities. So in a robust ecosystem, you
would have multiple outlets, each covering what is important to the people
who read them.
But in most local markets, regardless of what people are willing to pay you,
there’s just not enough money to support a vibrant newsroom. And we’re also
dealing with the devastation of Main Street still, as a result of 2008, so
you don’t have businesses clamoring to reach people with advertising.
What would we want to see fifteen years down the road? It would be great to
have at least a couple of news outlets in every community: a couple of local
ones and then a strong regional one that comes in to do the big picture. But
in the meantime, there’s a real choice facing us as citizens, and residents
in an area, as well as policy makers, and that is: Do we want something to
replace the current model? Or are we looking for a transition to something
Your news desert map shows the number of new sources available by county in
the United States. That’s a very clear way for people to see the problem at
a glance. What are other people measuring? What else do you think we ought
to be measuring?
I started mapping with a notion that it was about ownership. Because what I
had noticed was the dramatic shift in ownership over the previous decade.
But I think any good research builds on itself. After doing the initial
reports—the ones in 2016, ‘17, and ‘18—people said they knew what was going
on, but they hadn’t seen it quantified. At the same time, Phil Napoli at
Duke started building on what he had done at Rutgers to
try to look at quality;
that has been a really important step forward. We picked up on what Phil was
doing and said, we’re also going to see if news outlets are even providing
any of the information that the FCC says is important. It’s not just a
matter of saying “there’s gonna be a county commissioner meeting tonight at
X, Y, & Z.” Are there any local stories that are being done? Any stories
that were bylined? We began to see that sometimes you can have a newspaper
check off all the boxes of having covered maybe six of the eight categories,
but they were nothing but press releases or announcements.
If you look at our report on the Facebook data in the 2020 report, when we
looked at it at a North Carolina level, we saw that if you look only at
headlines and use an algorithm to pick it up, you’re going to pick up things
that probably are not what the FCC intended for public safety. So for
instance, when we actually looked at the amount of stories that were about
public safety, most of them were about bizarre crimes.
Sarah Stonbely, who
has done local news mapping in New Jersey,
has included places that people are turning to for information beyond a
newspaper, like community groups. And she also tried to think a little bit
about how to identify what a local community is beyond geographic
boundaries. Which is tricky. And also really interesting and important. Is
there another way to think about what we are measuring? And what can we see
when we measure things in different ways?
Facebook can be additive, but it’s not gonna be a substitute. Community
groups can be additive, but they’re not gonna be a substitute. What are all
the aggregates, and what do they add up to? It’s not to say we’re going back
to what we had, but there is a need to have some kind of general consensus
for people as to what’s at stake.
I’d like for somebody in every state to be looking at it at a state level,
because that’s going to be much more meaningful and enable us to target
areas that aren’t getting the information they need at both the national and
the state level. It’s going to differ for different states. Much of New
Jersey, for example, is squeezed between two major metro markets,
Philadelphia and New York. The needs in New Jersey are going to be different
than the needs in North Carolina.
We’ve been talking a lot about measurement. What’s difficult to measure
about the local news crisis?
There’s a way to measure just about everything. The question is, are you
measuring broadly enough or specifically enough to have actionable
information? Circling back to where we started in the beginning, an average
can be awfully distorting. I think that the thing we need to hold onto is
that for two hundred years, we had one dominant business model that
sustained local news organizations. That has collapsed. And we’re not going
to have one going forward, we’re going to have many. What we need to figure
out is what is the best business model for a community, whether that’s for
profit, nonprofit, some combination of that, etc. And this is going to take
a philosophical adjustment.
And because we’re such a large country, it may well come down to a very
local decision about what is to be supported. To me, it’s not a matter of
arguing over the right course. I think every report that has come out, every
bit of scholarship on this topic has been incredibly valuable over the past
decade, in terms of not only helping us identify the problem, but helping us
identify solutions, and understanding there’s not going to be one solution,
but many solutions.
Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes
CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project.
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