The number of daily newspapers circulating in the United States has been declining since the early 2000s, according to the Pew Research Center, and is currently at its lowest levels since the 1940s. After analyzing the “Occupational Employment Statistics” reports by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pew Research found that the number of employees from the newspaper sector is 45 percent lower than it was in 2004.
As more and more newsrooms downsize or close their doors due to lack of profitability, the amount of local independent reporting may be at its lowest point in years. Research indicates that a lack of local news sources may be associated with negative consequences for the public.
In areas where local news sources have gone out of business, there’s evidence that local governments become less efficient and waste more tax dollars. Reporting on local issues regularly exposes racial injustices, local health concerns, systematic discrimination, and abuse, including by officials, regional law enforcement and schools.
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In 2000, journalism professor James W. Carey wrote that “Journalism and democracy are names for the same thing.” In his book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Carey said that good investigative stories were being drowned out by “trivial and inconsequential” stories and that journalists were less free than they used to be, putting democracy under threat. Around this time, newspaper circulation and revenue was already beginning to decline.
By the time comedian John Oliver released a TV special about the current poor state of journalism in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, local independent reporting had dramatically declined due to reduced ad revenue and huge overall reductions in paid subscriptions. Although there had been significant increases in the number of people who get their news online, these readers typically expect to receive their news for free. Oliver’s special showed how financially struggling newspapers often move resources away from time-consuming investigative stories to focus on increasing ad revenue by providing a high volume of stories that get a lot of user engagement, regardless of newsworthiness. Oliver urged people to subscribe to newspapers which conduct investigative journalism.
While newspapers are experiencing financial woes, reporters are experiencing worse conditions at work. The 2017 CareerCast Jobs Rated Report, which has been published yearly since 1988, ranked “newspaper reporter” as being the worst job in the U.S. for the third year in a row, out of 200 jobs that get ranked on criteria such as income, environmental factors, outlook, physical demands, and stress.
Nearby residents are also affected. Two economists from the University of Goettingen in Germany compared government efficiency data against the presence of 150 newspapers in Norway. They concluded that local newspapers are associated with a lower cost per capita for public services such as education and healthcare. The authors said the results suggested that “a more informed electorate provides incentives for incumbent politicians to behave well” and “a larger share of informed voters goes with larger efficiency.”
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There recently have been some publications which have switched their business model to a news source from something else. For example, the publication L.A. Taco served the Los Angeles community since 2006, hosting a taco festival every year, and regularly posting photos and stories online about the city’s tacos and street art. The focus of the publication changed when Daniel Hernandez (who has previously worked for LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times, and Vice) took over as the lead editor of L.A. Taco in the first part of 2018. The publication’s focus is now reporting news.
Another relatively recent source of news is the reporting done by non-profit organizations. Wikitribune, which is a non-profit news source launched in 2017 that allows users to edit and contribute to news stories, was a relative latecomer. ProPublica is a non-profit founded in 2007 with the mission to use investigative journalism to “expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions.” In 2010, they became the first online-only news source to win a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and have since won three more Pulitzer Prizes in 2011, 2016 and 2017.
Other non-profit news sites have become serious alternatives to local newspapers, such as MinnPost (which serves Minneapolis-St. Paul), Voice of San Diego, and the New Haven Independent. For example, the Voice of San Diego has been acclaimed for publishing investigative reporting on the high number of local inmate suicides, how tax dollars are being spent against the will of voters, school district scandals, ongoing teacher sexual misconduct and more, with research often conducted by just a few people.
It is clear that the news industry is changing, and many signs point to a decline in journalism. What does that mean for the future? Many dedicated people are fighting fake news and identifying ways to make news more engaging, cooperative and community-oriented.