The News Desertification of America Is Getting Worse
4 min read

The News Desertification of America Is Getting Worse

Here are the key takeaways from Penny Muse Abernathy's latest report on America's expanding news deserts and their impact.
The News Desertification of America Is Getting Worse

A song to read by: “Dolce Vita,” by Ryan Paris

What I’m reading: “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead

Good morning, Medialyte mavens, and welcome to another edition of the only newsletter that, when combined with diet and exercise, has been proven to reduce brain cholesterol. Let’s get those eyeballs moving.

In the pantheon of media academics, Penny Muse Abernathy reigns supreme. That her name sounds like it might complement the dulcet strumming of a lyre is purely coincidence, but it does seem to reinforce the fact.

Abernathy is the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alongside Northwestern and Columbia, UNC is widely considered to be one of the premier institutions of journalistic study, and Abernathy is largely to thank.

Over the last 15 years, she has become the leading figure in the study of “news deserts,” which she defines as: “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

Abernathy and her team of doctoral students have taken to compiling their research into annual reports, which serve as the de facto authority on the phenomenon of vanishing news services. Earlier this week, the UNC team released their 2020 report, titled “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?”

You can access the entire report right here, and I strongly encourage you to check out her team’s accessible, intuitive website,, which allows you to scroll through interactive maps, find information on the health of your area’s local news and witness the changes in the industry firsthand.

However, to save you time, I’ve compiled some takeaways and graphics from the latest report, which is predictably grim.

What do news deserts in America look like?

  • Since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth — 2,100 — of its newspapers. This includes 70 dailies and more than 2,000 weeklies or non-dailies
  • At end of 2019, the United States had 6,700 newspapers, down from almost 9,000 in 2004.
  • Today, more than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues. Half of the counties have only one newspaper, and two-thirds do not have a daily newspaper.
  • Many communities that lost newspapers were the most vulnerable struggling — economically and isolated.

What happens when you live in a news desert?

Who is likeliest to live in a news desert?

  • Residents of counties with no newspaper — or only one newspaper — tend to be much poorer, older and less educated than the average American.
  • Eighteen percent are living in poverty, compared with a national average of 12 percent.
  • Almost half of residents living in a county without a newspaper also live in a food desert, “without access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods.”
  • They are less likely to be able to afford subscriptions to either cable or newspapers.
  • Many do not have access to high-speed internet in their homes or at work. As a result, residents of low-income areas tend to be overlooked by advertisers and have less access to print or digital media.

What parts of the country are most affected?

  • No state has been spared the death of a newspaper.
  • The South, which has some of the poorest states in the country, has the most counties without newspapers.
  • There were two dozen counties without a stand-alone newspaper in both Texas, with 254 counties, and Georgia, with 159.
  • California has lost the most dailies, 11.
  • Illinois, New York and Texas — some of the nation’s most populous states — lost the most weeklies, more than 150 each since 2004.
  • Several other states in the South with many fewer counties had at least a half-dozen counties without newspapers.
  • Ultimately, the loss of a local newspaper in one state has the potential to affect residents in other states.

What happens to the journalists?

  • Between 2008 and 2018, the number of reporters and editors employed by newspapers dropped from 71,000 to 35,000.
  • Experienced journalists migrate to national papers, which offer job security, but in doing so leave smaller communities bereft of talented journalists.
  • “This raises questions of when and where the next generation of journalists focused on accountability work will get trained, particularly those who might focus on local institutions,” says Stanford economist James T. Hamilton.
  • Many of the country’s 6,700 surviving papers have become “ghost newspapers.”
  • Good news: The number of journalists employed at digital sites has doubled to 16,000.

Some good readin’

— Tuesday and Wednesday are historic, potentially era-ending days for the two biggest newspaper chains in America. (Nieman Lab)

— Several social media sites, including Twitter, Twitch, YouTube and and Reddit, have taken sharp measures to curb Trump’s hate speech. Could there be an ulterior motive at play? (Wired)

Facebook joins Google in tweaking its algorithms to boost original reporting with credible sources. (Axios)

— Companies are jumping to join their competitors in boycotting Facebook. It will likely change nothing. (The Verge)

The New York Times pulls out of Apple News. (New York Times)