Where Local News Is Scarce — and Why It Matters

by Ari Pinkus November 02, 2023

As information warfare roils the global landscape, local news outlets in the U.S. continue to dwindle. Two-thirds of America’s 3,142 counties do not have a daily newspaper, according to Northwestern University’s report “The State of Local News in 2022.” And an American Communities Project analysis of the data finds the most rural county types are the most lacking.

More than 200 counties (6%) are news deserts with no local newspaper at all. An absence of local news is tied to lower voter participation as well as increases in corruption, misinformation, polarization, and distrust in media, according to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism report.

Our new American Communities Project/Ipsos survey released in October indeed found that media distrust is very high among residents across the 15 community types. In response to the statement “The mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth,” 75% of Americans agree. More than 80% of residents in the rural, less diverse communities of Working Class County, LDS Enclaves, Rural Middle America, and Evangelical Hubs share this view.

Our survey also found polarization to be an important issue facing the country across communities. Nationally, more than a quarter of Americans say it is a significant concern. In some rural and urban communities, it's around 30% of residents.

Rural America — running through a diversity of communities in the South, Appalachia, the Plains, the interior West, the Southwest, and Alaska — suffers the most from a lack of local news sources. Digging into the American Communities Project types shows lower-income, less educated communities particularly affected.

Of uppermost concern are Native American Lands in the Great Plains, Southwest, and Alaska, where 93% of the 45 counties do not have a daily newspaper. These younger, disinvested communities suffer from extreme economic, education, and health inequities. In Aging Farmlands, middle-income, mostly white older agricultural communities in the Central and Great Plains, 94% of the 268 counties don’t have a daily newspaper. Other historically underinvested communities are also underserved with local news. This includes 72% of the 178 lower-income Hispanic Centers, where fewer residents have college degrees.  In the lower-income, less educated, mostly white Evangelical Hubs, 85% of the 375 counties don’t have a daily newspaper. In the nearby African American South, 76% of the 272 counties don't have a daily, and in Working Class Country concentrated in Appalachia, 68% of its 280 counties don't have one.

It may be more surprising that 56% of Exurban counties have no daily newspaper, given their higher incomes and education levels. However, many Exurbs are satellites of larger metro areas and may have access to newspapers in the Big Cities, Urban Suburbs, and/or Middle Suburbs.

News Deserts — Counties with No Local Newspaper

Nationally, news deserts are found in 204 counties. Native American Lands fare the worst. The percentage in LDS Enclaves without a newspaper is also high, though these communities have more economic advantages and closer social ties.  Even so, local newspapers in smaller communities continue to be in danger of closing, a worrying sign for civic engagement and government accountability.

It's perhaps not surprising that Big Cities, with all their resources and histories, do not have news deserts. The only other counties without news deserts are the Urban Suburbs, multicultural, more affluent, more educated communities ringing cities. It's worth noting that it was an Urban Suburb weekly newspaper on Long Island, New York, The North Shore Leader, that initially broke the story about the biography and resume fabrications of now-U.S. Rep. George Santos (R) during the 2022 campaign. The paper endorsed the Democratic candidate as a result, writing: "This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican for US Congress in NY3 (Oyster Bay, N Hempstead, NE Queens). But the GOP nominee - George Santos - is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot." However, this was not amplified in the wider news media. Santos is now facing 23 federal charges, including for conspiracy, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and credit card fraud. Santos has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set to begin in September 2024.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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