2020 report from UNC Hussman Knight Chair on the state of local journalism


The latest report on the state of local news by Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC Hussman, was released June 24 by the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

“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.

“We’re at a pivotal moment in this country,” Abernathy said.  “The loss of local news organizations and journalists is accelerating. With our reports we aim to identify the communities and news organizations most at risk so we can direct our attention to reimagining journalistic, business, technological and policy solutions. All of us have a stake in nurturing strong local news organizations.”

More than one-fourth — 2,100 — of the country’s newspapers operating 15 years ago are no longer in business. Only half the number of journalists working at newspapers 10 years ago are doing so today. In addition to the state of local newspapers, the report focuses on the state of digital media, ethnic media and public broadcasting outlets. Abernathy found that those sectors face many of the same economic challenges as local newspapers.

“The paradox of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown is that it has exposed the deep fissures that have stealthily undermined the health of local journalism in recent years,” Abernathy writes in the report’s preface, “while also reminding us of how important timely and credible local news and information is to our health and that of our community.”

The report’s companion website — usnewsdeserts.com — includes more than 350 interactive maps that allow users to drill down to the county level to learn more about the local news landscape of all 50 states. Also this year, the website has a simple downloadable exercise that rates the quality and quantity of local news in a community.

“Penny’s work has been leading the national conversation about the future of community journalism because of the depth and importance of her research,” said Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman. “This report elevates that important conversation with insights into the role of ethnic and public media. Simply a tour de force.”

Abernathy specializes in preserving quality journalism by helping news organizations succeed economically in the digital environment. Her research focuses on the implications of the digital revolution for news organizations, the information needs of communities and the emergence of news deserts in the United States. She is a former executive at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and senior media business executive.

Abernathy’s report is published by the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

“The Knight Foundation support of this work elevates the national conversation that reaches not only across the country to news leaders but also within higher ed the way only a Knight Chair can do,” said Susan Leath, who  became the center’s director last year following a career in leadership at McClatchy and Gannett newspaper companies.

The center supports existing and start-up news organizations through its dissemination of applied research and the development of digital tools and solutions. It supports the economic and business research of UNC’s Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics. It administers the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative — a yearlong program in its fourth year working with media organizations to create sustainable solutions in the digital age. Earlier this year, the center 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.