The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts

"Much attention has been focused in recent years on the country’s largest and most revered national newspapers as they struggle to adapt to the digital age. This report focuses, instead, on the thousands of other papers in this country that cover the news of its small towns, city neighborhoods, booming suburbs and large metropolitan areas. The journalists on these papers often toil without recognition outside their own communities. But the stories their papers publish can have an outsized impact on the decisions made by residents in those communities, and, ultimately, on the quality of their lives.

"By some estimates, community newspapers provide as much as 85 percent of “the news that feeds democracy” at the state and local levels. This means the fates of newspapers and communities are inherently linked. If one fails, the other suffers. Therefore, it matters who owns the local newspaper because the decisions owners make affect the health and vitality of the community." 

This study "analyzed data from 2004 to 2016 on more than 9,500 local newspapers. Our 2016 database includes1,700 small weeklies with a circulation of 2,000 or less, as well as 20 large metro dailies with more than 200,000 weekday circulation, such as the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post. However, because our focus is on traditional local newspapers, regardless of their size, we excluded the large national papers — The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today — from our analysis, as well as specialty publications such as business journals and shoppers. This report, divided into four sections, documents dramatic changes over the past decade. With the industry in distress, local newspapers are shrinking, and some are vanishing. At the same time, a new type of newspaper owner has emerged, very different from traditional publishers, the best of whom sought to balance business interests with civic responsibility to the community where their paper was located. As newspapers confront an uncertain future, the choices these new owners make could determine whether vast “news deserts” arise in communities and regions throughout the country. This has implications not just for the communities where these papers are located, but also, in the long-term, for all of America."

We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of this initiative and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.