Research & Analysis

UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media supports established and emerging local news organizations through applied research and analysisThe Center documents the loss of local news across the U.S. while researching sustainable business strategies and innovative technologies for media organizations through three avenues of research.  

Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy leads The News Desert Project, which has produced three reports assessing the U.S. local news landscape, as well as two books—The Strategic Digital Media Entrepreneur and Saving Community Journalism—aimed at helping media organizations survive and thrive in the digital world.

U.S. News Deserts

The U.S. has lost nearly one-quarter of the local newspapers in existence in 2004. Many of the remaining newspapers are “ghosts” of their former selves, owned and or operating by hedge funds and private equity funds that employ aggressive cost cutting that erodes the quality and quantity of local news.  

The News Desert Project documents areas of the country at risk of becoming news deserts while also working with dozens of news organizations to create sustainable business strategies. The Center defines a “news desert” as “a community, either rural or urban, where residents have limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.” 

 The News Desert project has produced three comprehensive reports highlighting industry changes and ways to thwart the rise of news deserts and is currently updating the numbers for a 2019 report: 

By tracking the shifting news landscape and evaluating communities at risk of becoming news deserts, these reports sees to raise awareness of the role all of us can play in addressing the challenges confronting local news and democracy. Concerned citizens, community activistsphilanthropists, policy makers, educators and journalists can use the accompanying website – insert link – and its 260 interactive maps to drill down to the county level to understand how the news landscape in each of the 50 states is changing and explore the implications this has for their communities.  You can download a PDF copies of all the reports on this site, and also read about relevant research being conducting at institutions from around the globe. 

In addition, to documenting the loss of news, Knight Chair Abernathy has spent the past decade researching innovative and sustainable business models for local newspapers and broadcast stations, as well as digital start-ups.  She has published two books detailing her findings: 

During the past year, the applied research and data on news deserts and sustainable business models has been used or cited by more than 500 nonprofits, policy groups, government agencies, academic institutions and media outlets to advance the public’s understanding of news deserts and explore the implications the loss of local news has on democracy, accountability, the economy and sense of community.  

 For more on The News Desert Project, visit 


WATCH: Penny Abernathy took part in a Manhattan Institute discussion examining how the decline in local journalism affects the health of local democracy, and the steps local media organizations are taking to develop sustainable business practices in the modern media landscape.



“News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” — the fourth in a series of reports published since 2016 — is the most expansive yet, offering an assessment of what has been lost over the past 15 years, as well as identifying major challenges and opportunities for rebuilding local journalism in the decade ahead.

This Report-01

A collection of pieces examining the role of local newspapers in our democracy. Among the articles: a comparison of election coverage by independent and chain-owned newspapers, analysis of local television coverage of news, the role of an independent publisher in a community, the loss of a daily print paper, and the value of partnerships between news organizations.


Delves into the loss of local journalism over the past decade and the dramatic impact this has on communities throughout the U.S. It chronicles the shuttering of local news organizations, the rise of ghost newspapers, massive consolidation in the industry and various attempts by entrepreneurs to fill the news void. The two-part report also provides an update on the business strategies employed by investment groups that own newspapers – such as hedge funds and private equity funds– and the long lasting impact this will have on eroding trust in news organizations.


Examines the dramatic changes occurring in the local news landscape in recent years and the emergence of a new type of media baron – hedge funds, private equity funds and other investment partnerships – with priorities and missions that are very different from those of traditional newspaper companies. This has significant implications for society and for democracy at a time when the newspaper industry is facing disruption and financial distress.

Recent Research & Analysis

Abernathy part of Tow Center panel discussion on news deserts

UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy joined news researchers from around the country in a Sept. 9 Tow Center for Digital Journalism webinar “Redefining the Local News Crisis: Deconstructing the News Desert.” The webinar, the…

Supporting digital startups

As legacy news models continue to struggle, digital startups appear promising. However, while barriers to publication are few — no printing press or delivery trucks needed —digital startups face challenges as they build brands from scratch. This Medill Local News…

An open letter from the Knight Chairs in Journalism

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Penny Abernathy speaks at launch of UNC library local news exhibit

A new exhibit celebrating two centuries of North Carolina’s local news publications kicked off at the UNC Wilson Special Projects Library Feb. 27 with a talk by Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy, who shared her…

Penny Abernathy’s local news research cited in articles about media’s challenges covering COVID-19

As media outlets across the nation work to cover COVID-19, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of local news. Publications across the nation have cited UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy’s groundbreaking local news research…

WATCH: Penny Abernathy discusses journalism’s future on ‘Story in the Public Square’

UNC Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics Penny Abernathy recently appeared on the Pell Center’s “Story in the Public Square” program where she discussed her groundbreaking U.S. News Deserts research and her thoughts on journalism’s future.    She stressed the need for today’s journalists…