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.

Steven King, Chief Innovation Officer of Reese News Lab, explores new technological possibilities including artificial intelligence and virtual reality content.  Student-focused Reese News Lab uses new technologies and human-centered design concepts to work with local companies to research and develop creative solutions to the customer challenges media companies face. 

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: 

To learn more about the books and related websites, click here.  (Link to innovations and solutions page).  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 


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.

Download a copy here.


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.

Download a copy here.


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.

Download a copy here.

Recent Research & Analysis

2018 Report: The Expanding News Desert

Learn more about the dramatic loss of newspapers in recent years and the news barons who are transforming the industry. The Expanding News Desert, identifies the U.S. communities most at risk and delves into the implications for the news profession and…

Penny Abernathy’s news deserts research cited in USA Today article

CISLM’s Penny Abernathy’s research is cited in this USA Today article about the decline of local media. Read the full article.  

Case Study: Yahoo!

Introduction In 2019, Yahoo isn’t even Yahoo anymore. As part of its 2017 merger with Verizon, the company’s brand was folded into a new media conglomerate called Oath. The deal married Yahoo’s content platforms with some remaining AOL brands that…

A Fourth Generation Journalist Continues the Family Tradition

Margaret High grew up in the newsroom of the Pulitzer Prize-winning News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina. She’s the fourth generation in a newspaper family. Her great-grandfather, grandfather and father have all had a hand in leading the paper that…

What it means to be a president/ publisher in the digital age

The Internet has blurred the line between the ways media enterprises have traditionally been defined. Successful media organizations attract, retain and grow an audience through a variety of platforms. In this case study, William R. “Bill” Barker – Florida southwest…

What exactly is a “News Desert”?

  There’s been a lot of buzz in the press recently, including Nieman Lab, Washington Post and DFM Workers prior to and following Politico’s recent piece that found a correlation between Trump’s 2016 election success and counties with the lowest…