What can we learn about sustainability from shuttered newsrooms?

"What can we learn about sustainability from shuttered newsrooms?" table of contents

  1. What can we learn about sustainability from shuttered newsrooms?
  2. The Profile of Closed and Merged Newspapers
  3. Closed newspapers are more likely to be in urban counties than suburban or rural counties
  4. Independent owners are more likely to close newspapers rather than merge them with another
  5. Newspapers that close had higher circulation than those that were merged
  6. Newspapers in counties with higher median household income and more residents over 65 are more likely to be merged rather than closed
  7. Conclusion, Limitations & Recommendations for Future Research
  8. Appendix: Methods

What can we learn about sustainability from shuttered newsrooms? Analyzing closed and merged newspapers from 2019 to 2023

Clay Williams, Graduate Student Researcher
Jessica Mahone, Research Director

Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media
Hussman School of Journalism and Media
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The decline of the local news industry is not a simple equation of supply or demand for local news and information — instead, it has been a spiral of declining interest from audiences and advertisers, declining resources and quality from the news organization, and declining value.

At what point in this spiral do local newspapers close or merge? What are the common factors and indicators of a point of no return? And for those still running news organizations, thinking of starting new ones or committing resources to creating informed communities, what can be learned about sustainability?

This report examines data about newspapers themselves alongside factors such as demographics and community type (rural, suburban, or urban) to develop profiles of papers that have closed or merged with another over the previous four years.

Highlights from this report:

  • Of 445 newspapers identified as having closed or merged with another between 2019 and 2023, roughly three-quarters had been closed rather than merged with another.
  • Nearly 70% of newspapers that were closed or merged between 2019 and 2023 had circulation below 24% of the number of occupied households in their county.
  • Newspapers with independent owners were more likely to be closed, likely reflecting the struggle of owners to find buyers.
  • Newspapers in small towns/rural and suburban areas were more likely to merge, while newspapers in urban areas were more likely to close.
  • Newspapers located in a county with a higher percentage of residents age 65 or older and a higher median household income have higher odds of merging than closing.
  • Newspapers located in a county with a lower percentage of residents over 25 with at least a Bachelor’s degree have higher odds of closing than merging.

Previous research has generally considered the characteristics of communities themselves as the primary factor in the makeup of news ecosystems. For example, this line of research has identified traits of “news deserts,” defined as counties without a local newspaper. Specifically, news deserts have lower median household income, lower rates of educational attainment, higher median age, and a higher poverty rate than the US average. These counties tend to be rural or suburban as well.

More recently, predictive modeling drawing on this research has identified population as the strongest positive predictor of newspaper count. Further, as the percentage of Black residents in a small or mid-sized county increases, the number of newspapers serving the county decreases, a pattern that is less prominent in larger counties, and in small counties, this same pattern was observed for Hispanic and Latino residents, suggesting rural Black and Hispanic/Latino communities likely experience some of the greatest disparities in local news coverage. Conversely, the number of newspapers serving a county increased as median household income and the proportion of residents 65 and over increased. Based on these findings, this modeling predicts 228 counties will become “news deserts” by 2028.

This modeling built on prior research on the news ecosystems of 100 randomly sampled communities between 20,000 and 300,000. That study found that local journalism was most robust in communities that were further from a large media market, had a higher number of colleges and universities, and with a smaller Hispanic and Latino population, again drawing attention to disparities in local news access for communities of color.

The present study builds a profile of newspapers that closed and merged with another between 2019 and 2023 based not only on data about the counties where they were headquartered but also data about the ownership and circulation of these papers. For the majority of these papers, the ratio of circulation to occupied households in the county of operation was below the estimated market penetration rate for print newspapers in the United States, indicating that many of these papers likely were not reaching the communities they covered.

The present study not only examines an overall profile of newspapers that closed or merged with another during the previous four years but examines specific factors leading to either a closure or a merger. While the two are often considered synonymous in much existing research on news ecosystems, there are often differences in what a merger means for coverage of a particular community. The specifics of mergers can be dependent on a variety of factors including the proximity of other publications, ownership and the market the papers operate in. Understanding the full impact and meaning of mergers would require a content analysis and is outside the scope of this report.

Additionally, while considerable concern has been voiced for the growing share of newspapers bought, owned, and closed by investment companies, newspapers with independent owners seem to have fared worse over the previous four years. Independently owned newspapers were more likely to close than be merged with another. Those owned by publicly traded or private companies were more likely to be merged with another rather than closed. Newspapers owned by investment companies were about as likely to be closed as to merge with another.

Further, this analysis shows that urban news loss takes a different shape than rural or suburban news loss. Urban newspapers were more likely to close than merge with another while small town/rural and suburban papers were more likely to be merged with another.

Finally, this study looks at how the demographic characteristics of the counties where these newspapers were located influences whether or not the local newspapers close, finding that as age and median household income increases, the likelihood of a newspaper being merged with another increases.

Next chapter

"What can we learn about sustainability from shuttered newsrooms?" table of contents

  1. What can we learn about sustainability from shuttered newsrooms?
  2. The Profile of Closed and Merged Newspapers
  3. Closed newspapers are more likely to be in urban counties than suburban or rural counties
  4. Independent owners are more likely to close newspapers rather than merge them with another
  5. Newspapers that close had higher circulation than those that were merged
  6. Newspapers in counties with higher median household income and more residents over 65 are more likely to be merged rather than closed
  7. Conclusion, Limitations & Recommendations for Future Research
  8. Appendix: Methods