The State of Local News 2023 – Local News Initiative

The State of Local News Project |
The 2023 Report
by Penelope Muse Abernathy | businessofnews
There was both good news and bad news for local journalism this past year. The good news raised the possibility that a range of proposals and programs could begin to arrest the steep loss of local news over the past two decades and, perhaps, revive journalism in some places that have lost their news. The headlines on the bad news resoundingly conveyed the message that urgent action is needed in many venues — from boardrooms to the halls of Congress — and by many, including civic-minded organizations and entrepreneurs.
The good news: Philanthropists committed to major funding — $500 million — to support local news. Public officials at the national and state levels considered programs to address digital and journalistic inequalities. And a growing number of news outlets forged promising business models.
At the same time, however, the number of local news outlets continued to contract at an even steeper rate in 2023. On the current trajectory, by the end of next year, the country will have lost a third of its newspapers since 2005. Discouragingly, the growth in alternative local news sources — digital and ethnic news outlets, as well as public broadcasting — has not kept pace with what’s being lost.
As a result, most communities that lose a local newspaper — usually a weekly — do not get a replacement. Those communities are typically poorer and without access to high-speed broadband that would connect them with other reliable news sources in their region, state and nation.
The data and insights collected and analyzed in this 2023 report on The State of Local News paint the picture of a country and society increasingly divided between the journalism-have’s — mostly residents in more affluent cities and suburban areas where alternative news sources are gaining traction — and the journalism have-not’s, those in economically struggling and traditionally underserved metro, suburban and rural communities. This partitioning of our citizenry poses a far-reaching crisis for our democracy as it simultaneously struggles with political polarization, a lack of civic engagement and the proliferation of misinformation and information online.
Here are the key findings from this year’s report, published by the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University:
Residents in more than half of U.S. counties have no, or very limited, access to a reliable local news source — either print, digital or broadcast. There are 204 counties without any local news outlet and 1,562 counties served with only one remaining local news source, invariably a weekly newspaper. For the first time, this year’s report places 228 of those single-news source counties on a “Watch List” — at high risk of losing its last remaining local news outlet. Most of these watch list counties are located in high poverty areas in the South or the Midwest, and many serve communities with significant Black, Hispanic or Native American populations.
Newspapers are continuing to vanish at an average rate of more than two a week. Since 2005, the country has lost almost 2,900 newspapers, including more than 130 confirmed closings or mergers over the past year. All but about 100 were weeklies, which are often the sole provider of local news in small and mid-sized communities. There are currently only 6,000 newspapers in the country, approximately 1,200 dailies and 4,790 weeklies.
In addition to losing almost a third of its newspapers, the country has lost almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists — 43,000 — since 2005. Most of these journalists were employed by large metro and regional daily newspapers, half of which are owned by the nation’s 10 largest chains. Today, many of the large dailies owned by chains employ less than a fifth of the journalists on staff in 2005. After years of buying newspapers and merging with one another, many of the largest chains paused and began shedding newspapers in 2023 — either closing them or selling them to other chains or local owners.
The footprint for alternative local news outlets — approximately 550 digital-only sites, 720 ethnic media organizations and 215 public broadcasting stations — remains very small and centered around metro areas. Each of these alternative news sources faces unique business challenges that constrain their growth. Many digital start-ups have trouble gaining enough subscribers and funding to achieve long-term sustainability. Since 2018, the number of new local news digital start-ups established annually has roughly equaled the number that go dark. Most ethnic and minority-owned media have suffered from the same dramatic decline in advertising revenue as mainstream newspapers. As a result, more than 150 long standing ethnic news operations closed during the pandemic. And public broadcasting outlets — especially local NPR news stations — are underfunded, receiving only a small percentage of the public funds allocated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As a result, many metro areas have not been able to replace the missing newspapers with digital or broadcast alternatives, and most suburban and rural communities that lose a local newspaper do not get a replacement.
At a time of industry-wide economic disruption, news organizations located in affluent or growing communities with diverse sources of for-profit and nonprofit funding are most likely to develop sustainable new business models. However, committed and entrepreneurial local owners and founders can also find ways to thrive in less affluent markets. This year, we explore in depth 17 promising new business models for both legacy and start-up organizations, located in a variety of markets. All but one of these are locally owned and accountable, suggesting that local news operations with entrepreneurial owners and community support have a much better chance of developing sustainable news models.
Reversing the decline in local news will necessarily involve multiple stakeholders pursuing complementary programs and objectives that target funding to communities and news outlets most at risk. This includes policymakers at the state and national level, national philanthropic and community organizations, universities, industry executives and civic-minded individuals — all of whom have a stake in ensuring a healthy local news ecosystem and a strong democracy.
This year’s report is accompanied by more than 400 interactive maps that allow you to drill down to the county level in each of the 50 states. Learn more about local news landscape in your state by clicking on this link and following the instructions.
The findings in this report and information on the maps are based on analysis of data and information on more than 9,000 news organizations — newspapers, digital outlets, ethnic media and public broadcasting — collected over the past year by the Local News Initiative, a program of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The data was verified and cross-referenced using industry and government sources, independent research and press accounts. Read the full methodology details here.
This is a vast country, encompassing more than 3.7 million square miles, 3,100 counties and tens of thousands of far-flung incorporated and unincorporated communities, many with fewer than 10,000 residents.
From our nation’s earliest days until recently, our democracy at the grassroots level has been held together by a vast network of local newspapers that helped residents in those small towns not only connect with their neighbors and others in their region but also public officials in their state and nation’s capital.
By the early 1900s, there were an estimated 24,000 weekly and daily newspapers in the country, with almost half of the papers located in counties west of the Mississippi. Throughout the 20th century, that number eroded, sometimes slowly, but at an accelerated pace over the past two decades. Today we have only 6,000 surviving newspapers, many struggling to survive, as print advertising revenue has collapsed to record lows, and publishers have been unable to compensate by attracting sufficient digital dollars.
In a 2011 report, the Federal Communications Commission took note of the number of newspapers that were vanishing and articulated an urgent need for other news organizations — digital and broadcast — to step up and provide more local coverage.
Yet today there are only about 550 local or state digital news sites in the entire country and fewer than 1,000 active local minority or ethnic news outlets — the vast majority of which are located in major cities or state capitals. Only nine of 169 PBS stations produce a local news show, and only slightly more than 200 NPR stations have a local reporter on site. While the nation’s 800-plus regional television stations have the ability to reach large audiences through cable and over the airwaves, numerous research studies have concluded that more than 90% of the news stories that air are about events, issues and people in the city where the station is located.
As a result when most communities lose a news outlet — most likely its last surviving newspaper — there is often no alternative local news source. This is especially true of less affluent rural and suburban communities.
Today, residents in more than half of all the country’s 3,100 counties either do not have a local news outlet or have only a single surviving outlet — almost always a weekly paper. These counties are often referred to as “news deserts” — defined as a community where residents have very limited access to critical news and information that nurtures both grassroots democracy and social cohesion.
Three million residents live in the 204 counties without a single news source. Approximately 17% of the residents in those counties live in poverty compared to less than 12% in the U.S. as a whole. The counties are predominately rural and sparsely populated, and residents often lack access to either cable or reliable high-speed internet. Cut off from state and regional news networks, they rely on their cell phones, which offer a diet heavy on national news, as well as misinformation and disinformation.
In an additional 1,562 counties, 52 million residents have only a single source of local news. In 1,547 of those suburban or rural counties, a small weekly or daily newspaper that is either locally owned or part of a small chain is often the sole source of local news, for everything from school board meetings to high school sports. The other 15 counties are served by either a digital-only site (6), an ethnic news outlet (3) or a public broadcasting station (6).
Residents in these single-news-source counties, which are mostly rural or suburban, tend to be slightly more affluent and better educated than residents in counties without any local news outlet.
However, the 2023 State of Local News report has placed 228 of the 1,562 single-news-source counties on a “Watch List” — at heightened risk of losing their last remaining newspaper. The two million residents living in these counties tend to be much poorer than even residents in the 204 counties without a single news source. The average poverty rate in these counties is 22%, and in some of the more rural counties, almost half of the residents live in poverty. Many of these counties have significant minority populations (Black, Hispanic or Native American) and are located predominantly in the South and Midwestern states, such as Alabama, Georgia, the Dakotas and Texas.
While much attention has focused on the loss of news in more rural areas of the country, two-thirds of the newspapers lost in recent years have been located in and around metro areas. Twenty of the 50 largest metro areas in the country have lost as many as half of their community papers since 2005. Eighty-five percent of these newspaper closures occurred outside the core urban area, in suburban and ex-urban communities. New York, Chicago and Boston lost the biggest total number of newspapers, while Columbus, Ohio, Chicago and Milwaukee lost the most papers per capita.
Poverty rates in these 20 large metro areas range from 15% in Oklahoma City to 22% in Philadelphia. New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston have been the most successful in establishing new digital alternatives to replace the newspapers. However, the majority of these digital sites were established in more affluent suburban communities with reliable broadband, leaving many in urban neighborhoods and poorer suburban communities with little coverage of local news that affects the quality of life of current and future residents.
We’ve examined in detail 17 promising business news models. These news outlets are located in a range of markets: city, suburban and rural; affluent and economically challenged. Each profile has a report card on progress to date and in-depth interviews with the founders and executives who are leading them. Not surprisingly, news organizations that are located in affluent and growing communities — and have entrepreneurial owners — are much more likely to develop sustainable new business models.
Why are we continuing to lose local news? In the end, it all boils down to economics. “Digital disruption, news avoidance… and advertising declines continue to negatively impact all local media, regardless of type,” says Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, whose members come from print, digital and broadcast media. However, she points out, each medium faces unique challenges:
Given the current state of media economics, poorer communities — whether rural, suburban or urban — are much more likely to lose a newspaper and be overlooked by entrepreneurs, corporate investors and philanthropic donors seeking to fund alternative news outlets. This situation is creating a nation increasingly divided journalistically between those who live and work in communities with local news and those who don’t.
Therefore, the major challenge confronting policymakers, philanthropists, industry executives and investors is how to increase and redirect funding to those communities at the highest risk of losing the news.
The rate of newspaper losses in the U.S. ticked upward in 2023 to two-and-a-half a week, an acceleration driven by a handful of large chains and smaller regional companies shuttering multiple papers in one fell swoop.
Over the past year, 131 newspapers in 77 counties were unable to regain their economic footing in a post-pandemic world and disappeared from their communities.
In 16 economically struggling counties located in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky — with poverty rates four percentage points higher than the U.S. average — residents were left with no local alternative news source once the weekly newspaper closed. Eleven of those 16 newspapers were locally owned and were shuttered when the publisher could not find a buyer.
Since 2005, the country has lost almost a third of its newspapers — 2,886 — and today has only 6,005 survivors, including 4,792 weeklies, or nondailies, that are often the sole source of news and information in their communities. North and South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota lost the most newspapers per capita between 2005 and 2023. All but a handful were weeklies.
Three dozen new papers have been established over the past five years, and a growing number of independent, locally owned newspapers — small weeklies, as well as major metros — are developing promising new business models that utilize both commercial and philanthropic funding to expand coverage of issues that affect their own communities, as well as communities that have become news deserts. This includes small weeklies, such as the Recorder in Virginia and metro dailies, such as the Seattle Times and the Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina.
Even so, most communities that lose a newspaper do not get a replacement — either print, digital or broadcast. Exacerbating the situation, 60% of newspaper journalists — 43,140 — have left the business since 2005 — retired, laid off or severed by corporate owners. This loss of journalists impacted states large and small, which face similar challenges, whether their population is growing or shrinking. These include issues around politics, development, transportation and the environment.
Texas, the nation’s second largest state with 30 million residents, grew 50% between 2005 and 2022, the fastest of any state in the country. During the same period, it lost 65% of its newspaper journalists. South Dakota and Alaska, two of the nation’s smallest states, grew 20% over the same period yet lost between a third and two-thirds of their newspaper journalists, respectively.
Consolidation in the struggling newspaper industry has been a significant driver of the loss of both local papers and the journalists who worked there. More than half of all dailies and a quarter of all remaining newspapers are owned by the 10 largest chains (determined by the number of newspapers owned, not print circulation).
Four of these 10 large chains — the merged Gannett/Gatehouse company, the MediaNews/Tribune newspapers (owned by Alden Global Capital), Lee Enterprises and CNHI — are either owned by, or in debt to, an investment firm, including hedge funds or private equity groups. The other six are large private regional chains, which own between 46 and 148 papers each.
In recent years, these large chains have severed the most journalists and been very aggressive in shuttering and merging many smaller dailies and weeklies, especially those in suburban markets, or weeklies located in a county adjacent to a regional daily newspaper.
In Ohio, for example, Gannett, the nation’s largest chain, shuttered 16 community newspapers in the Columbus area and stopped publishing another six in the Akron area over the past year. In recent years, Gannett also has discontinued print versions of more than 100 weeklies in the Boston area, publishing, instead, “regional and state” news for those suburban communities on the Wicked Local site. According to information on that site, only three of those papers currently offer print subscriptions.
This dynamic has led to the rise of “ghost newspapers,” which have either no local journalists remaining on staff or so few that the paper’s ability to provide critical news and information to residents in that community has been severely curtailed. A separate review by the Local News Initiative of the 70 smallest newspapers owned by Lee and Gannett found that three dozen had no listing for any local journalists on staff.
The dual loss of newspapers and journalists has had a major impact on the way information flows throughout the country’s news ecosystem, from the smallest paper to the national news outlets. According to various estimates, as much as 85% of the news that ultimately made national headlines was, until recently, first published in a local newspaper. This was because newspapers employed twice as many local journalists (75,000 in 2005) as any other medium and therefore covered many smaller communities overlooked by television and radio.
The newspaper ecosystem today consists of four layers. At the very pinnacle are the four national newspapers: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Post. These papers still employ hundreds of journalists, but much of the content is focused on national topics (politics, the economy, culture and entertainment), with a side-serving of international news, produced by their own foreign correspondents.
Right under the national giants are 150 or so major metro dailies, such as the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald. Until recently, most large dailies employed hundreds of journalists, who covered important statewide beats — such as education, business and politics — and produced major investigative pieces.
Today, many of the dailies owned by the largest chains have only a few dozen journalists on staff. The loss of thousands of newspaper journalists who once worked for the major dailies has resulted in a significant decline in investigative and beat reporting. In the years leading up to 2015, almost half of all Pulitzer Prizes were won by large metro papers covering issues of statewide concern. Today, most are won by large national news organizations.
Many dailies also intentionally have curtailed print circulation outside the metro area, further limiting their ability to inform residents about statewide issues. The Alliance of Audited Media reports that both paid print and digital circulation of the 504 papers it audited in 2023 was down to 10.2 million, a loss of almost a million subscribers over the past year. In 2005, print circulation alone for all audited newspapers exceeded 50 million.
Below the metro dailies — forming the base of the newspaper pyramid — are the remaining two layers, consisting of 1,063 small dailies and 4,792 weeklies, which often employ only a handful of reporters to cover everything from county commission meetings to local festivals and personalities. Often reporters on these small dailies and weeklies served as stringers, who alerted journalists on major metros to a potentially explosive event or issue in a single community that could have regional and statewide ramifications.
The loss of almost a third of local newspapers and the corresponding loss of almost two-thirds of newspaper journalists has not only short-circuited the flow of news and information among news organizations but also has made it harder for people to hold their state and local elected officials accountable.
With fewer journalists covering city halls and state government, the average citizen knows less and less about what their local government officials are doing.
The authors of the recent book News Hole: The Decline of Local Journalism and Political Engagement correlated a decline in voter participation to a significant decrease in the number of local news stories in daily newspapers over the past two decades. In 2020, more Americans voted than in any presidential election since 1900. In stark contrast, only 10% of eligible voters cast ballots in some recent local primaries. This lack of civic participation gives incumbents a distinct advantage and leads to straight ticket voting up and down the ballot.
In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission identified eight types of “critical local information” that all of us need in order to make wise decisions about issues that will affect the quality of our lives today and in the future. In addition to politics, the list included news about education, health and safety, the environment and the economy.
Recent research has shown that newspapers — even in their diminished journalistic state — still provide most of the “critical” local news that the FCC identified.
In many cases it is the independent, locally owned papers that are developing new business models to provide that critical information that the FCC cited. Approximately 3,000 of the surviving newspapers in the country are either locally owned or part of a small area chain of less than five papers. They range from small weeklies and dailies to large metros, such as the Boston Globe and Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Some independent newspapers are even stepping into the breach and buying local newspapers in danger of closing — or starting new ones. In 2019, EO Media, headquartered in eastern Oregon, stepped forward to purchase the Bend Bulletin in bankruptcy proceedings, besting offers from two out-of-state regional chains in Minnesota and Rhode Island. And in January 2023, EO Media established a new newspaper in southern Oregan, the Rogue Valley Times, following the closure of the Mail Tribune in Jackson County.
The owner of the independent Charleston Post and Courier believes that newspapers are finally getting “a second wind” as their journalistic and business models evolve.
Nevertheless, even the most innovative and strategic newspapers are dealing with diminished profit margins that often constrain their journalistic mission. This has led major news organizations, including the News Media Alliance and America’s Newspapers, to advocate for a range of new policies, legislation and regulations at the national and state levels that will provide more financial support for local newspapers during a period of immense economic uncertainty. Without that support, Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen worries, “the industry is approaching fail safe.”
For many newspapers achieving sustainability requires mixing familiar ingredients in the right proportions. The Moab Sun News, a free weekly that began publishing in 2013, has relied on a combination of advertising, audience revenue and collaboration with local community organizations.
The lack of reliable high-speed internet in many regions of the country continues to limit the ability of local and state digital-only news outlets to reach new audiences, scale quickly enough to achieve sustainability, and fill information gaps in many rural and suburban communities when a local newspaper disappears.
As a result, in recent years, the total number of local digital news outlets has stubbornly hovered around 550, with most located near large cities where there is more access to philanthropic and investor funding, as well as the potential for reaching large, digitally connected audiences.
Two recently funded programs are designed to change this paradigm by the end of the decade. The $45 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, part of the Infrastructure Act, aims to address the digital divide between rural and suburban areas and cities by significantly expanding reliable and affordable broadband across wide regions of the country. And a consortium of 22 philanthropic organizations announced in late summer that they were committing more than $500 million over the next five years to support new and existing news outlets, especially those providing news to underserved and poorer communities.
In 2023, however, there is still a significant digital divide in terms of where most local news sites are located. The vast majority — more than 80% — of the 541 digital-only news sites in this year’s tally are located in large metro areas with more than 250,000 residents. Over 400 of the sites primarily cover local issues in the community where they are located, with the rest covering regional and statewide issues or doing investigative journalism.
There continues to be considerable turnover — especially among hyper-local, for-profit news sites, which rely primarily on advertising revenue to fund their newsrooms. Despite the addition of 53 new sites established over the past two years, 39 inactive sites were removed from this year’s list, including The Grafton Common in Massachusetts, which ceased operations in 2022, when its only reporter left.
However, half of all the 541 digital-only news sites active in 2023 have been around for longer than five years, and a third were established more than 10 years ago. Forty percent of those sites established five or more years ago are nonprofit.
This includes Carolina Public Press, founded in 2011, and Benito Link, founded a year later. Both began as local sites, relying primarily on funding from local community foundations and individual donors. Carolina Public Press has evolved into a statewide investigative site, while Benito Link has remained committed to providing news to residents of San Benito County, California, where more than 60% of residents are Hispanic. Both sites have major initiatives aimed at serving both rural and Spanish-speaking residents, many of whom do not have access to reliable high-speed internet and are tethered to their cell phones for news.
While almost 80% of the state-focused sites are nonprofit, there’s been an uptick in locally oriented nonprofit sites in recent years. The long-term financial success of nonprofit sites depends on not only obtaining grants from philanthropic organizations and community foundations, but also getting local donors and business sponsors to provide continuing support to supplement those grants.
Nonprofit local news sites that cover statewide issues (such as the Texas Tribune, established in 2008), or are located in major cities (such as Block Club Chicago, founded in 2018), tend to achieve financial stability quicker than those in smaller cities and rural communities since they are able to solicit from a much larger group of foundations and individual donors.
However, as the recent layoffs at the Texas Tribune illustrate, even nonprofits are not immune from the economic realities that confront the industry. Whether nonprofit or for-profit, all digital news operations need to continually raise enough funds — either from foundations and individual donors, or advertisers and subscribers — to stay in business.
Currently, over two-thirds of the local sites are for-profit. There are three crucial variables that often determine success of locally focused, for-profit sites: the population density and size of a community, the relative affluence of its residents (household income) and the size and robustness of its retail community. Some are able to survive in rural areas with affluent communities, but very few are able to achieve sustainability serving economically struggling rural and suburban communities.
In September 2023, the publisher of The E’ville Good, which serves rural communities in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, took to Facebook to tell her readers about the struggles the site had been facing. “Despite putting aside some funds and completing the Google News Initiative’s Managing Risk and Finance fellowship in late 2022/early 2023,” Amy Peterson wrote, “the economy caused other backers to pull out, paid subscribers to pull back, and the price of everything to knock us down.”
Although she had built a new website and created a newsletter, she said she ultimately had the same number of subscribers as when she began. While continuing her day job of reporting for the local newspaper, Estherville News, Peterson wants to try to revamp E’ville Good so she can continue serving the Hispanic community, which constitutes 30% of residents in Estherville. One of the options is to focus more on local entertainment, especially theater. But she’s unsure how a digital outlet can become sustainable in her community.
Of the 20 sites founded within the past year, all but one are in urban areas. The exception is the Athens County Independent in Athens, Ohio, an affluent college town of 25,000 residents that is home to the University of Ohio. Nineteen of these new sites are locally focused; only one, Ocean State Stories in Rhode Island, includes statewide coverage.
Both for-profit and nonprofit sites are increasingly relying on either subscriber or membership revenue to supplement income from grants or advertising. While the concept of subscribing to a news outlet or otherwise supporting local media is familiar to listeners of public radio, it is only relatively recently that news outlets have begun to think of their audiences as one of their primary revenue streams.
Recent studies have found that those who are most likely to become members or subscribers to local news organizations are in top income brackets, which reinforces inequity in the availability of local news content, as startups gravitate toward more affluent communities.
Many digital start-ups face an uphill battle in raising community awareness of their outlet’s existence and acquiring an audience, since they are not visible on grocery-store newsstands and do not have the name recognition of print newspapers and magazines.
That is why the announcement from Meta in late 2022 that it was laying off staff in its Facebook news division and cutting back its financial and technological support of local news organizations hit the founders of many digital sites especially hard. Despite the complicated relationship many news sites have had with Facebook, visibility on the social media platform helped build audiences.
Organizations such as the Local Media Association used the $20 million it received from Meta to not only train digital news organizations in how to acquire digital audiences, but also distributed grants to struggling digital outlets, helping them to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Many news sites are now hoping that funding from the Press Forward initiative will compensate for the loss of the Meta funds. However, as John Palfrey of the MacArthur Foundation, one of the major funders, writes in an article for The Atlantic, without the additional support of individuals and organizations in a community “$500 million will not be enough… Divide that amount by 50 states and spread it over five years, and even half a billion dollars starts to look grossly inadequate.”
That is why Palfrey is urging community organizations and individuals to “stand up and support their local news providers — whoever that may be in any given area. … They will need to add it to their list of philanthropic commitments—or at least to their list of subscriptions, alongside Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix.”
Public television and radio stations have vast reach. Their free programs can be accessed by 98% of the U.S. population, including people living in communities without any other local news source and those without reliable broadband access. But their ability to fill the void in many news deserts is limited by significant funding issues that inhibit their ability to do original journalism.
Since the creation in 1967 of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which acts as a conduit for redistributing government funds to both public radio and television, the United States has lagged far behind other technologically advanced democracies in its financial support of public media. That means stations have relied increasingly on philanthropic dollars to support their journalistic endeavors. But these funds can only be stretched so far — and fluctuate year to year.
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations currently receive two-thirds of the $450 million in taxpayer dollars allocated annually to CPB, but most of that is used to purchase entertainment programs, such as “Masterpiece Theatre,” or to support national news shows. National Public Radio (NPR) receives less than 1% of its annual operating budget from CPB or other federal grants on average. CPB funding makes up an average of 12% of independently owned and operated public radio stations' budgets. Because of that, all of public radio must rely on donors, sponsorships and grants for much of the income that finances its local news operations. As a result, public radio, especially, remains understaffed and underfunded.
There are about 1,100 public radio stations and affiliates spread across the country, when including the hundreds of stations that operate more than one signal. Excluding so-called “repeaters”, there are about 400 public radio stations. But only 213 are currently producing original local journalism, according to a 2023 Medill survey of the content on the websites of each of those stations. Staffing numbers provided by CPB list 2,359 journalists at these 213 local news stations, including 1,352 reporters. The four states with the highest number of public radio stations producing local content are California (19), Alaska (16) and Colorado and Florida (both with 11).
A 2023 survey of news directors at more than 200 local public radio stations found that all felt they needed more reporters to cover their communities adequately. Those stations that reported being most severely understaffed serve communities that have the most difficulty securing income from audiences and donors.
Public television has far fewer local journalists and local news operations than public radio. Only a third of 158 public television stations have at least one reporter on staff, and only nine PBS stations produce a local news show that airs at least three days a week, according to Robert Papper, research professor at Syracuse University and director for the past 26 years of the Radio Television Digital News Association annual survey of the nation’s commercial and public broadcasting stations.
Faced with a loss of sponsors of podcasts, NPR announced this year a 10% reduction in staff and the cancellation of four podcasts. After projecting earlier this year it would end this year $22 million short in revenue, NPR officials now expect to finish the year with a $7 million gap. It has reportedly lost $30 million in corporate sponsorship revenue since last fiscal year.
Public broadcasting stations have been able to work around budgetary limitations and expand their local news coverage by pursuing innovative collaborations and mergers with other news organizations and universities.
A recent survey of 95 public radio stations in 38 states found that more than three-quarters of them are collaborating to some degree with universities in their communities. In some cases, the public radio stations work with journalism students to produce local stories, which then are broadcast on the station. In others, students receive paid internships, with credit hours that count toward their degrees.
Public radio stations also are banding together to form regional networks of reporters aimed at producing news and information for communities that have lost a newspaper.
In five counties in Alaska, for example, public radio is the sole provider of local news for the 32,000 residents who live there. These five stations — KDLG in Dillingham, KFSK in Petersburg, KMXT in Chignik, KUCB in Unalaska and KYUK in Bethel — employ a total of 10 reporters, who serve a rural population. Its residents include significant indigenous populations. Recent stories on the websites of these outlets highlight after-school programs about indigenous cultures, alongside articles about local elections and the renovation of a local hiking trail.
As they search for ways to reach wider audiences and supplement their news-gathering capabilities, public broadcasting stations also have begun to acquire or merge with other news organizations:
More recently, public radio stations have begun to merge with newspapers. Such partnerships can be more complicated since newspapers have different cost structures and often have a unionized workforce.
In a widely publicized merger, Chicago’s WBEZ acquired the Sun-Times, a newspaper founded in 1948. Similar mergers occurred in 2023 in both Denton, Texas, where KERA acquired the 78-year-old Denton Record-Chronicle, and in Lancaster, Penn., where WITF merged with a print newspaper titled LNP. The newspaper — along with its website, two weeklies and a state government publication — were donated by its family owners to WITF, which holds joint licenses for television and radio. This arrangement included the creation of the Steinman Institute for Civic Engagement, which “will support local journalism and community-focused education initiatives and provide training opportunities for journalists.”
Despite funding limitations, numerous studies have found that public media continues to provide its viewers and listeners — as well as those who access their websites and podcasts — with a robust diet of critical news and information.
Given the national politics surrounding funding of public broadcasting, it is unlikely that federal support will increase significantly in the near future. That means public radio stations, especially, remain dependent on philanthropic funding and innovative collaborations and mergers to expand significantly their reach into news deserts. These various efforts by public radio stations to acquire and merge with local community newspapers or digital news sites are designed to create better resourced local news operations and — many hope — a more sustainable financial model for public media going forward.
When Chicago Public Media, parent company of public radio station WBEZ, acquired the Chicago Sun-Times in January 2022, it created one of the country’s largest nonprofit news organizations while establishing a new template for combining a local public radio station with a heritage daily newspaper. There have been other partnerships between public radio stations and print news outlets in recent years, but this one was the most ambitious, and the rest of the local news industry took note.
Ethnic media are a vital source of local news and information that often has been missing in mainstream news outlets. Their journalism helps ethnic and minority groups of all types connect with one another and with critical services and institutions in the community.
These news organizations take different forms — from print-only to digital — and include some of the country’s oldest newspapers as well as newly formed outlets that serve recent immigrant communities via WhatsApp.
As the makeup of the country’s demographics shifts inexorably, ethnic news outlets will play an increasingly important role in providing essential news and information to people who often do not get covered by the mainstream press.
At the time of the 2020 census, nearly 20% of U.S. residents identified as Hispanic or Latino, 14% as African American and 6% as having Asian heritage. If current population trends continue, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than half the country’s residents will be non-White by 2045.
Because of the complexity of identifying hundreds of ethnic outlets that fly below the radar and receive scant attention beyond the communities they serve, this year’s report focused primarily on determining which organizations that existed in 2020 had survived the pandemic and were still active in 2023. Future reports will more exhaustively document the local ethnic news landscape and delve more deeply into the many initiatives and programs aimed at supporting them. As with any national audit, we recognize that there will be outlets missing, and we will continually refine our methods to capture as many as possible.
While ethnic news organizations face many of the same business challenges as other news outlets, they also face unique challenges. The severe economic downturn that accompanied the pandemic hit ethnic media hard — especially those that relied primarily, or exclusively, on advertising revenue from local businesses.
Over the past three years, more than a quarter of the community-based ethnic news outlets documented in a 2020 survey by the University of North Carolina have closed, leaving only 723 still actively producing news.
Slightly more than half of the outlets still active in 2023 are newspapers, and a quarter are television channels. The rest include radio stations, digital outlets, as well as newsletters and magazines.
Currently, minorities are more than twice as likely to live in or near cities. As a result, most active ethnic media outlets — more than 90% — are located in major metro markets. The counties with the highest number of ethnic media outlets are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and Miami.
Digital-only ethnic outlets only recently have begun to gain traction. That is because many communities with significant minority populations — both urban and rural — still lack reliable access in their homes to broadband or high-speed internet. Additionally, for-profit ethnic news outlets are most likely to survive and thrive with the broader business base that comes with greater population density.
Because ethnic and community media often are deeply intertwined with their communities, their success depends to a large degree on the health of other community institutions, especially locally owned businesses. Many for-profit ethnic media — whether print, broadcast or digital — are overlooked by larger regional corporations, such as health care facilities, either because they are not aware of them or because they do not see value in advertising to their audiences. Therefore, many still rely primarily on advertising revenue from local businesses to pay the bills. If locally owned businesses go under water — as happened with so many during the pandemic — the media outlets that rely on them are put in financial peril.
El Aguila, a bilingual (Spanish and English) publication founded in 1997, is one of more than 150 small ethnic outlets that failed to survive the pandemic. It served the Westchester County suburban communities north of New York City. Until 2020, El Aguila published and distributed a free bimonthly print product, posted stories on its website and had an active social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. The print edition was shuttered following the nationwide “lockdown” in spring 2020, and the last story on the website was posted in fall 2022.
The Local Media Association’s Knight Foundation-funded BloomLab works with Black-owned and -operated local media outlets to upgrade their technology to drive digital revenue and audience growth. LMA CEO Nancy Lane points to the success of Larry Lee, publisher of the Sacramento Observer, who grew his team from two and a half full-time employees to 14 in less than two years after taking advantage of BloomLab and similar programs. “That gives me hope for the future,” Lane said.
Other recent initiatives also have the potential to increase journalistic coverage and reach — as well as to support the financial stability — of minority and ethnic communities. In Colorado, for example, Sol de Valle brings together a coalition of for-profit and nonprofit news organizations to produce news for the Spanish-speaking population in the Roaring Fork Valley.
In New Jersey, Spanish-language reporters from around the state translate English-language news to be shared with Spanish-speaking audiences. And the Los Angeles Times this year launched De Los, a multiplatform subsidiary that serves the large Latino audience in the greater Los Angeles area.
“Our target audience is younger than any other racial or ethnic group in this country,” said Fidel Martinez, editorial director of De Los. “As a result, they’re exceptionally digitally savvy. They over-index in usage for platforms like TikTok and Instagram. As such, we’re devoting efforts and resources to meet them where they are.”
Policies recently enacted in some cities and states are aimed at not only bringing critical news to underserved communities but also shoring up the financial condition of ethnic media. New York City, Chicago, Connecticut and Colorado all have passed laws that direct existing government advertising to ethnic and community media outlets.
Because local and state governments already spend millions of dollars on such announcements — around COVID and the census, for example — these directed advertising campaigns have the potential to not only to reach new audiences but also provide an important source of supplementary income for struggling ethnic outlets. Various organizations are working with ethnic media outlets to ensure they have the resources and information to access and maximize their share of this government advertising money.
Philanthropies also have become more intentional about targeting ethnic media outlets in their grants — although, to date, most of the largest grants from national philanthropic organizations have gone to digital outlets around major cities. Our Bright Spots map highlights the efforts of several nonprofit digital start-ups attempting to reach large minority populations through innovative strategies, including the Outlier in Detroit, established in 2016. Three quarters of all residents of Detroit identify as Black — and a similar proportion say they lack reliable internet service in their homes.
Milwaukee has a vibrant Latino community, located mostly on the city’s south side and in adjacent suburbs. For 25 years El Conquistador has served this community as the only Latino-owned local news provider, circulating as a free weekly bilingual newspaper available in neighborhood grocery stores, barbershops, bodegas and online.
The accelerating loss of newspapers — and the inability of other news outlets to fill the void sufficiently in many communities — has far-reaching consequences for our democracy.
It is at the local and state levels — where we, as citizens, have the most ability to influence the choices made by our elected representatives. Numerous researchers in multiple disciplines have documented the impact on communities without a reliable source of local news. Since people know less and less about what their local government officials are doing, voter participation in local and state elections declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.
Troubled by these consequences, public officials, philanthropists, educators, industry executives and concerned citizens have stepped up efforts to save local news.
Here’s a highlight of some of the most important initiatives:
On the policy front, there are several major initiatives that could directly and indirectly assist local news outlets in developing sustainable business models, as well as provide critical news and information to residents who live in news deserts.
Broadband Investment: In terms of how local news is delivered in the 21st century, the government’s upcoming $45 billion investment in broadband services may well have the biggest long-term impact. The funds were set aside for this purpose in the 2021 Infrastructure Act. It is the largest federal investment in telecommunications in the history of the U.S. and is designed to address the current digital divide that afflicts both rural and urban communities.
Because of the lack of broadband in many rural areas, as well as the high cost to connect in poorer inner city and suburban neighborhoods, there is little economic or journalistic incentive for either print and broadcast outlets — or digital start-ups — to provide digital news and information to residents in those communities. By the end of this decade, the broadband initiative aims to address significant issues around the lack of technological and economic access to high-speed internet to thousands of communities, including many that also have lost a newspaper.
Challenges: It is up to each state to develop a plan for addressing digital inequities. Some are contributing state funds to address the issue; others are not. There is also concern that because the federal government has relied primarily on data provided by telecommunications companies, the funds set aside in the Infrastructure Act may not be sufficient to address the numerous “broadband deserts” that currently exist. Louisiana is the first state to have submitted a proposal to the federal agency overseeing the distribution of these funds, “and should be watched as a pacer,” says telecommunications scholar, Christopher Ali. Many other states have not begun to develop a robust process for evaluating broadband availability or utilizing the federal money.
Policies to Support Local News Outlets: The founders of our country believed a free press was vitally important to our democracy. So one of the very first pieces of legislation passed by Congress in 1792 was a postal subsidy for newspapers, an indirect way of using public funds to support the economics of local newspapers.
There is proposed bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives that also aims to indirectly support the bottom line of struggling local news organizations. The bill would provide tax credits to news organizations that hire reporters and to small businesses that advertise with local news outlets. In 2019, Canada offered tax credits for news organizations that hired reporters and found that it boosted the bottom line of even hyper-local news sites by 10%.
Additionally, there is separate legislation in the Senate — and more than four lawsuits winding their way through the courts — that seek to hold the tech giants more accountable for compensating news organizations for their use of journalism. In many communities, Facebook and Google siphon off as much as 75% of the available digital dollars, leaving all news organizations — including television and news sites — to fight for the scraps.
Such legislation was enacted in Australia three years ago, despite initial threats by both Facebook and Google to block access to their services in that country. According to an initial assessment, the law benefitted small news outlets as well as large media corporations — although it is unclear how many small organizations actually participated.
At least 14 state legislatures and a couple of local city agencies are considering similar policies and programs to support local news outlets.
Challenges: Given the current state of politics in both the House and the Senate, it appears unlikely either bill will be enacted before the next election. Lawsuits often take a decade or more to achieve any sort of resolution and restitution. Meanwhile, many news organizations are hanging on by a thread. However, these national bills often create a roadmap for state legislators to follow, says Steve Waldman, president of Rebuild Local News, a nonprofit coalition advocating policies to address the crisis in local news. That is where he anticipates most success in the near future.
In September, a coalition of 22 philanthropic organizations and foundations announced they were pledging an unprecedented half a billion dollars over the next five years to support local news operations. “Press Forward will aim to re-center local news as a force for community cohesion, support new models and solutions that are ready to scale, and close longstanding inequities in journalism coverage and practice,” said John Palfrey, President, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the major funders.
While most of the original funders are national organizations, Palfrey hopes this investment will encourage community foundations and organizations, as well as local individuals, to join the effort. With “more entrepreneurial and diverse leaders, smarter tools… and exciting policy ideas that have gained bipartisan support,” Palfrey believes “a local news renaissance” is possible.
While most philanthropic funding to date has gone to digital start-ups in large cities or statewide sites, some community foundations and individuals are beginning to support legacy media in less populated areas. In August the National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit organization that aims to keep newspapers alive and locally accountable in at-risk communities, purchased the five dailies and 17 weeklies formerly owned by the Masthead Maine group.
Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, is “extremely encouraged” that “more funders are allocating budgets to journalism projects than ever before,” allowing “many news organizations to add reporters to their newsrooms for the first time in many years.” The Press Forward announcement was especially good news this year, she said, when many news organizations have had to lay off reporters as advertising revenue continues to decrease.
Challenges: While the recent commitments by major philanthropies to local news have the potential to be game-changing for many news organizations, the amount contributed in the near future cannot begin to replace the tens of billions of dollars lost in advertising revenue over the past two decades. Additionally, major philanthropic money is often in short supply in the regions that lack a reliable local news outlet — economically struggling and traditionally underserved communities in urban and suburban markets, as well as rural areas.
In recent years, hundreds of scholars — in the U.S. and around the globe — have begun to train their critical lens on both the issues and solutions confronting local news organizations. These include economists, political scientists, sociologists and historians, as well as communication researchers. They are collecting and analyzing data, both to map and to identify communities at risk, as well as to study the impact of losing local news on communities without it. Additionally, concerned citizens and nonpartisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, have committed to mapping in minute detail the local news landscape in specific states.
The research being provided by scholars and other nonpartisan groups is being used by policymakers at both the national and state levels to guide decisions about regulations and legislation to support local news. And scholars in other countries are providing U.S. researchers with benchmarks to compare the trajectory of various trends (such as the level of trust in local news in this country vs other technologically advanced democracies).
Challenges: Despite a renewed focus on local news research in recent years, there is still much more that would be helpful in guiding philanthropists, policymakers and local communities as they make decisions about how to allocate limited resources. This includes determining the critical components needed to establish either for-profit or nonprofit business models in economically struggling communities and determining which communities and counties within each of the 50 states are most at risk of becoming news deserts.
More than 60 universities and colleges have designed courses and committed resources to addressing the rise of news deserts. Professors are partnering with struggling newspapers and digital sites in their state, placing students in those newsrooms to assist with the reporting. Several universities have also established student-run weekly newspapers or digital-only sites in communities without a news outlet. In 2021, the Maxwell family gifted the Oglethorpe Echo to the University of Georgia’s Grady School. The paper now serves as a learning lab for students, who produce the news.
Additionally, the Press Forward initiative is funding a collaborative effort by two dozen universities and colleges to use student journalists to cover news desert communities and to beef up state house coverage. Since 2005, the number of newspaper journalists has declined by 60%. Providing real-life reporting experience in college potentially could inspire students to become local journalists when they graduate.
Challenges: Sustaining local news operations during school breaks — especially during the summer — is a challenge. Additionally, there is always a steep learning curve at the beginning of each semester or quarter, as new students cycle through and learn the ropes, leading to a lack of consistency in coverage.
Much attention in recent years has focused on the business and journalistic strategies of the largest chains — many of them in debt to, or owned by, hedge funds or private equity groups. However, about half of newspapers in the U.S. are still locally owned or part of a small chain with fewer than five papers. The same is true of many digital start-ups. These locally owned, independently operated news organizations — whether legacy or start-up — have been among the most innovative in developing promising new business models and devising collaborative strategies and programs that provide news to economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities, including those with large minority populations.
Of the 17 news business models featured on our “Bright Spots” map and project, all but one are independently owned. There is no one business model that unites all of them. Rather each has developed a model unique to the community these outlets serve. They exemplify what can be accomplished when news organizations honor civic mission, as well as shareholder return.
Challenges: None of these news organizations are immune from the business challenges confronting both for-profit and nonprofit news outlets. As a result they often need to scale back their aspirations, but they persevere and serve as a model for others.
Progress is never even — and it is an open question as to whether these various initiatives, individually or together, will be timely enough to reverse recent trends or targeted enough to reach communities and outlets most in need. Yet they represent a promising start.
Not only are both legacy and start-up news outlets adapting to the new environment, but there is also an emerging consensus among multiple constituents — public officials as well as ordinary citizens, organizations and individuals — that the fate of our democracy and the fate of our journalism are inherently linked. Therefore, saving community journalism in the 21st century needs to be a priority — both reviving it in places where it has failed and reinforcing it in places where it is just sprouting.
The State of Local News Project includes funding from the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Microsoft, Myrta J. Pulliam Charitable Trust, Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation and Medill alumnus Mark Ferguson.
With local journalism in crisis, Northwestern University has assembled a team of experts in digital innovation, audience understanding and business strategy. The goal: reinvent the relationship between news organizations and audiences to elevate enterprises that empower citizens.