Assessing the news deserts landscape and looking forward: UNC CISLM Director Susan Leath shares latest research from Knight Chair Penny Abernathy

Susan Leath

Susan Leath is the director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Today the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) released its latest report on the state of local news in the U.S., offering fresh insight into what has been lost along the ever-changing local news landscape and what can be done to revive and preserve the news organizations our communities look to for trusted information.

News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” is the fourth such report from Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC Hussman, who has devoted much of her academic career to extensive research that documents both the emergence of news deserts across the nation and the development of sustainable models to support quality local journalism in the digital age.

What does this new report tell us? In 15 years, the U.S. has lost a quarter of its newspapers — around 2,100 — and half of its newspaper journalists to shuttered outlets and shrinking staffs. As newspapers across the nation struggle to survive or even cease to print, digital news sites are turning to a mix of different business models and platforms to fill the gaps — with varying success. African American and Latinx media, as well as public broadcast stations, similarly face economic uncertainty as they strive to meet their needs of their audiences and survive.

The research team used this information to update and expand, with more than 350 interactive maps that allow users to drill down to the county level to get context for the state of local media in communities throughout the country. As with previous reports on news deserts, we hope that others will look to these new findings for perspective and insight as they strive to meet audience needs for information and seek business models that can survive — and thrive — the transformation to digital news media.

This new installment of news deserts research is the latest example of the dynamic work UNC CISLM engages in as we uncover solutions that can help news organizations as they promote and protect democracy and give voice to communities that need them most.

Earlier this year, we announced Project Oasis, a research-based enterprise in partnership with Google News Initiative and LION Publishers to identify, share and implement the best practices that help local digital news models get started and succeed. As part the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative, we welcomed our fourth cohort of media organizations to participate in a yearlong program to create sustainable solutions in the digital age. Several organizations who have participated in our Table Stakes initiative are mentioned in “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers” as examples of groups that are demonstrating sustainability.

At CISLM, we believe in the power of local news — the important foothold it has had in our history and the promise it holds for our future. We are grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its generous support as we do this work so that others may do the work of informing citizens long into the future.