Local newspapers have bonded communities for generations, establishing a routine for Americans curious about their cities and towns. In the course of a day, the newspaper occupied the commuter, informed the citizen, checked the powerful, and delighted or mortified families—depending on what was inside. Virtually everyone, regardless of wealth or background, paid some attention to the day’s headlines. Ignoring the paper meant risking social isolation, missing opportunities, and overlooking milestones in the lives of friends and colleagues.
Now the local paper, its moribund condition long suspected, confronts more discouraging news. Last week, a Pew Research Center assessment reconfirmed its bleak prospects. In 2018, the approximate total U.S. daily newspaper circulation hit its lowest number since recording figures began in 1940. The estimated weekday circulation for print and digital editions combined was 28.6 million, half the total of 1999. Declining readership, a result of plummeting advertising revenue and growing digital preferences, translates into fewer workers. One in four U.S. newspapers announced layoffs last year, and the number of employees dropped by 47 percent within the past decade.
Troubling signs abound. A University of North Carolina report, released last year, confirmed that 1,300 localities have lost news coverage. A digital geography, without boundaries, has created “news deserts,” or communities without local coverage. Though the trend has devastated rural regions—more than 500 newspapers have closed or merged since 2004—it hasn’t spared metropolitan or statewide papers, either. Last year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ceased its daily print run, and Pittsburgh became the largest city without a daily print newspaper; beginning this October, it will limit home delivery to three days a week. In Illinois, meantime, the Peoria Journal Star, the state’s largest newspaper outside Chicago, covers only three counties—it was once 23—with a downsized newsroom of about a dozen guild employees.
Local communities suffer the consequences of a dying news industry. As technology erodes civil society, disrupts labor markets, and estranges households, a local paper’s demise robs cities and towns of an irreplaceable cultural foundation and extinguishes local awareness. A Facebook group or Instagram page cannot fill the void left by a local paper; a newspaper’s absence means unconfirmed rumors, uninvestigated crimes, and unreported events. A new construction site, a disorderly neighborhood, or a corrupt city hall become mysteries, rather than stories to be investigated, comprehended, and corroborated.
In a 2016 Columbia Journalism Review essay, Michael Rosenwald explored the importance of print, noting that “No app, no streamlined website, no ‘vertical integration,’ no social network, no algorithm, no Apple, no Apple Newsstand, no paywall, no soft paywall, no targeted ad, no mobile-first strategy has come close to matching the success of print in revenue or readership.” Just visit the bottomless archives of Newspapers.com to understand a local paper’s impact on a community. Reading a town paper from 1969, for example, we can see what communities grappling with economic decline and social tumult today have lost—pages of local stories, department store ads, sports scores, and social bulletins. Photos featured Chamber of Commerce members, fraternal organization meetings, church bazaars, presentations of cardboard checks at community fundraisers, and ribbon cuttings for new businesses. Each page supported local retail, inspired charitable acts, and nurtured social cohesion.
Local newspapers also produced acclaimed writers, who often honed their craft by reporting in smaller cities and towns. In the late 1920s, fiction writer John O’Hara—chronicler of America’s social hierarchy—worked as a reporter at the Pottsville Journal and the Tamaqua Evening Courier in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County. In 1955, after graduating from Harvard, David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, documented the civil rights movement for Mississippi’s West Point Daily Times Leader. And in 1957, Tom Wolfe—innovator of the New Journalism and keen observer of American cultural change—worked as a general assignment reporter for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts.
As print fades away, can digital media fulfill the civic role of local journalism? Pew reported that digital ad revenue has grown, but advertisers still send the largest share to Facebook and Google, not publishers. Traffic has leveled off, with unique visitors to newspaper websites showing no growth between 2017 and 2018. “A flurry of studies has shown that the reading experience online is less immersive and enjoyable than print, which has implications for how we consume and retain information,” Rosenwald noted. He added that “readers tend to skim and jump around online more than they do in print—not just within individual stories, but from page to page and site to site.”
It remains unclear how a digital newspaper, devoid of local flavor, could replicate the papers once tossed on doormats by neighborhood children as their first experience of gainful employment, and stacked at newsstands and sold by familiar faces. As we passively scroll newsfeeds—ignoring paywalls and avoiding digital subscriptions—we see fewer and fewer local stories, from obituaries to community events. In America’s volatile and polarized political climate, this is a loss with serious ramifications, particularly in struggling regions, where residents are searching for meaning, hope—or the simple satisfaction of knowing which team won yesterday’s high school football game.