Dr. Michelle Ferrier at Ohio University in her work on media deserts (defined as “a geographic location that lacks access to fresh, local news and information”) argues that the impact on communities—typically areas “with high concentrations of people of low to lower income, who generally don’t have college educations”—is discernible:
Residents miss news and information about jobs, economic development, local government, schools, and other infrastructure that keeps local communities growing. The news gap may include environmental issues, like toxic waste, that often affect lower-income communities disproportionately.
Even a reduction in plurality of news media sources can be detrimental for communities. In 2014, a study from Lee Shaker of Portland State University “suggest[ed] that eliminating a local newspaper from a community leads to less civic engagement in the immediate aftermath among the citizens of that community.”
Shaker’s findings were seemingly reinforced by a Pew study in late 2016 that found a strong relationship between civic engagement and local news habits.
Put simply, the more civically active tended to follow more local news sources (led by TV, radio, and then newspapers), and “just as taking part in local political and civic groups is closely associated with greater interest in and intake of local news, positive civic attitudes closely connect with positive attitudes about local news.”
For Matthew Powers, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington (Seattle), there’s a risk of news desserts arising in southern Seattle and other parts of the region. He says:
“I can easily envision a sort of news ecology that emerges where middle class and the better off are relatively well served and where there’s reasonable coverage of city hall and state government, but there’s a lot less that actually is dedicated to some of the real issues that people living in less well-off neighborhoods would want to know.”
In some parts of Oregon, and elsewhere, that’s already happening. According to Caitlyn May, editor of the Cottage Grove Sentinel (Oregon):
“The communities in my immediate area have lost their weekly newspapers. But their kids still play high school sports, their water still costs money, their economic development is still of interest, their city council still meets, and they still have street fairs, concerts, and farmers’ markets.
No one is reporting on these things, and without recent J-school graduates hungry to tell stories and bring new ideas to the table, mid-career investigators hoping to ferret out injustice, or experienced, not-quite- ready-to-retire veteran journalists willing to invest in these newsrooms, we will continue to provide a disservice to the electorate and, ultimately, the nation and ourselves.”
It’s in everyone’s interests to try and work together to identify solutions and best practices to ensure the continued existence—not to mention prosperity—of local journalism.