Local Newsrooms Are Vanishing - Here's Why You Should Care : Consider This from NPR Newspapers and intrepid reporters are at the heart of hundreds of movies - think Citizen Kane, All The President's Men -and have always been a big part of American culture.

But in recent decades, the rise of digital news has led to the steady decline of print. And while big papers like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post still distribute print editions – small, local papers have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

Add to that the consolidation of news outlets by big companies like Gannett and Alden Global Capital. Both companies have been buying regional newspapers, only to reduce the reporting staff, or completely dismantle an operation, focusing on turning a profit.

Research has shown that when local newspapers are lost affected communities experience lower voter turnout, decreased civic engagement, and increased polarization.

Host Adrian Florido speaks with Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University on the increasing number of news deserts.

And we hear from journalist Ashley White about the difficulties of providing a Louisiana community with news and information at a newspaper undergoing drastic reductions.

Local Newsrooms Are Vanishing - Here's Why You Should Care

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Extra, extra. Read all about it. (Inaudible) are in trouble again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITIZEN KANE")

GEORGE COULOURIS: (As Walter Parks Thatcher) Is that really your idea of how to run a newspaper?

ORSON WELLES: (As Kane) I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) Woodward, Bernstein, get in here.

JASON ROBARDS: (As Ben Bradlee) You guys are about to write a story that says the former attorney general, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) If I reveal my sources, you wouldn't talk to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As character) Yeah, that'd be terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) Come on, Eliot (ph). The public has a right to know a few things.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As character) Where does it say that?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Newspapers and plucky reporters who get the news have always been a big part of American culture. Think "Citizen Kane" and "All The President's Men." In recent decades, the rise of digital news has led to the steady decline of print. And while big papers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post still distribute print editions, small, local papers have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

MCKAY COPPINS: There's a pretty big body of research that shows that when a local newspaper vanishes or is dramatically gutted, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, a general erosion of civic engagement. It makes it easier for misinformation to spread, for conspiracy theories to spread.

FLORIDO: McKay Coppins is a staff writer at The Atlantic. After the hedge fund Alden Global Capital bought a string of local newspapers across the country, Coppins looked into the impact that had on communities.

COPPINS: A lot of cities almost operate with the assumption that there will be at least one local newspaper, in some cases several local newspapers, acting as a check on the authorities. And what we've seen in a lot of these places where newspapers have been scaled back or even closed is that there really is no comparable product in place, whether it's by the government or by another news organization, to do what these local newspapers have done for hundreds of years.

FLORIDO: Coppins says that Alden cut newspaper staffs and gutted their operations. That meant these papers could do less reporting. And if the company still couldn't turn a profit, it dismantled papers even more or moved them entirely online.

COPPINS: They don't need these newspapers to become long-term sustainable businesses. They just need to maximize profits quickly so that this will show up in their ledger as a winning investment.

FLORIDO: Alden is not the only company buying up newspapers across the country. Consolidation, shrinking newsrooms and digital-only platforms are now common. And the pace of this change has accelerated over the last couple of decades. CONSIDER THIS - what happens to communities when local news organizations disappear? That's coming up. From NPR, I'm Adrian Florido. It's Saturday, April 22.

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FLORIDO: In early 2019, reporter Ashley White moved to Lafayette, La., to work at the community's small newspaper, The Daily Advertiser.

ASHLEY WHITE: I feel really passionately about local news. It's why I've stayed in local markets. I love the communities that I work in and obviously think that the work we as journalists do in these communities matters so much. There's so much that happens in this community that needs to be reported on.

FLORIDO: When she took the job, she knew the paper was having problems. There had been cutbacks and layoffs. A top editor had left, and several of the paper's reporters followed her to a competing paper. But Gannett, the newspaper company that owned The Advertiser, went on a hiring spree to replace the staff it had just lost. White was one of the half-dozen or so reporters that it brought on. I asked her if, despite knowing about these recent problems at the paper, she felt hopeful when she took the job.

WHITE: Yeah, now that you put it that way - makes it sound a little naive on my part. The way that Gannett had brought in reinforcements made me really hopeful that they would keep pouring into this newspaper. And I'd ask the same thing, right? Like, what guarantees do I have that I start at The Advertiser, and then all of a sudden, I get laid off? Got a typical job answer - right? - is that I can't guarantee you, but look at the way that Gannett has taken these extraordinary efforts to make sure that The Advertiser doesn't close, right? All these reporters left, and we could have closed the paper, and we didn't. So we - you know, obviously, Gannett wants to support this paper. And that was kind of the reassurance I got and decided that was good enough for me.

FLORIDO: And she was eager to get to work. There were a lot of stories to tell, even in her first week on the job.

WHITE: There had been arsons at these three historically Black churches and in a community about 30 minutes north of Lafayette. And they had made an arrest in those arsons. And so it was a son of a sheriff's deputy - and so being able to tell that story. And that same week, the Lafayette Diocese released its list of credibly accused priests in sexual abuse cases, another hugely important story, and Lafayette was one of the last diocese in Louisiana to release that list. I mean, those are the stories that maybe larger publications pick up and maybe they don't, but they matter to the people here. They matter when you're at the local diner talking to people. Those are the stories that people are chatting about.

FLORIDO: But she noticed the changes at work within just a few months when Gannett, already the country's largest newspaper company, merged with another big publisher, GateHouse Media. The cost-cutting measures started almost immediately. Staff who left were not replaced and more layoffs. The reporters who were still around were asked to do a lot more with a lot less.

WHITE: As reporters, we pushed back. It was, do you want us to do quality work, or do you want us to do quantity work? And the answer was both. And it was just something that I couldn't reconcile. I couldn't spend the time meeting with people at coffee shops, asking them, how are your kids doing? But also, please tell me about the shady thing you saw happening at the police department - and still build those relationships and nurture those stories and be able to put out daily content that was high performing. It was just an expectation that I couldn't reach. And I think a lot of the reporters in the newsroom at the time felt the same way.

FLORIDO: Late last year, the paper froze hiring, and more staff left. White stayed, but the newsroom was on life support, down to just her and one other reporter. At the start of this year, she made the tough choice to leave for a job at The Advertiser's rival, the Acadiana Advocate. She said it was a heartbreaking decision.

WHITE: Especially because I feel like I poured so much into The Advertiser to make sure quality journalism was happening, to make sure that the community knew that The Advertiser and its reporters cared about what happened and their stories, no matter if it was police brutality or if it was your kid's robotics team going to the state championship. I and my colleagues did so much work building those relationships and those expectations.

FLORIDO: White says the worst part is what the decimated newspaper has meant for Lafayette.

WHITE: It's a huge gap for this community who does rely on the local journalists to tell the stories, to go to the city council meetings, to go to the library board meetings, to show up to the school fundraiser and talk about what a good job they're doing. They rely on us. And to not have that anymore is a huge loss.

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FLORIDO: Today, White is still a reporter for the Acadiana Advocate, The Daily Advertiser's main rival, but she roots for The Advertiser. She desperately wishes for it to get better.

WHITE: I'll tell people that I used to work for The Advertiser, and they'll basically tell me, like, good job for getting out, which really sucks. I mean, I do still care about it, and I still care about the people who are there. And I very passionately care about local journalism and think the more reporters, the more journalists, the better informed a community is.

FLORIDO: Despite how much harder it's gotten for residents of Lafayette to get good reporting, she says the journalists who are still around are still plucking away, determined not to let the community become a news desert.

WHITE: We're evaluating every day what stories need to be told and how do we focus on the communities that we may have neglected or may not feel like they've gotten the proper voice that they need? I'd love to have huge newsrooms again. The newsrooms and the reporters that are here are still doing the hard work and still care about this community.

FLORIDO: Lafayette, La., is just one of so many small communities across the country coping with a newspaper that is just a shell of its former self. In many of these places, those newspapers are also owned by Gannett. Coming up, we'll speak with an expert about Gannett's strategy for its papers and what it all means for the future of local news.

JOSHUA BENTON: There are communities where there often isn't as much of an alternative in terms of a local television station or a local digital news outlet that's covering the area. So in a lot of communities, there just aren't a lot of options.

FLORIDO: Joshua Benton writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. He's been studying what happens to local news organizations that end up being bought by big profit-minded companies, most specifically Gannett. Since its merger with GateHouse Media in 2019, Gannett has closed or sold hundreds of papers and cut staff by more than half, a trend that continues to this day. I asked Benton what the thinking is here.

BENTON: The Gannett that we have now is the result of the merger of two very large companies. The idea was an individual newspaper might struggle on its own, but if you buy enough of them, you can extract as much of the cost of producing the newspaper from the local community as possible. You cut down on print days. You have the page layout and editing done elsewhere. The thought was you could achieve these economies of scale and make a profitable business. The problem is, as part of the merger, Gannett took on a lot of debt, and they have to pay off that debt. So they need revenue. And the way that they have been doing that is by cutting costs to the bone. That means cutting staff and cutting the quality of their newspapers.

FLORIDO: I guess it goes without saying that print circulation of newspapers has plummeted in recent years. It's been on the decline for decades actually. And today most people get their news online. Is it just the case that these Gannett newspapers aren't managing to get people who used to subscribe to their print paper to subscribe to their digital product instead?

BENTON: Yeah. Newspapers have generally given up on the idea of creating new print readers. They're not really making new print readers anymore. So the idea has been to shift to digital, and Gannett claims some degree of success in doing that. But even when that does happen, newspapers generally make significantly less money off of a digital subscriber than they do from a print subscriber. The other problem is that there are lots of other free alternatives for a lot of local news and information, and people will be happy to consume those without bothering to subscribe to the local daily.

FLORIDO: You write in the Nieman Journalism Lab that in the last few years Gannett had 563 newspapers and today has fewer than 400. Many of these are newspapers that are serving smaller cities and towns. So what does it mean for these communities when their newspapers are sold or closed or even if they're just gutted of staff?

BENTON: Yeah, Gannett CEO Mike Reed has said that he sees in the future the company will be focusing on its larger newspapers in communities like Phoenix and Indianapolis. But Gannett owns a lot of very small newspapers, a lot of weekly newspapers, a lot of very small daily newspapers. Those larger weeklies and smaller dailies are in a really tough position economically. It's very difficult to manage the cost while emphasizing digital subscriptions and getting enough of them to make things work out.

There are also communities where there often isn't as much of an alternative in terms of a local television station or a local digital news outlet that's covering the area. So in a lot of communities, there just aren't a lot of options. And these places will become more like a news desert, you know? One newspaper in Eugene, Ore., The Register-Guard, was locally owned by a family in Eugene until 2018 when it sold to GateHouse and which was then merged into Gannett. And in that time, the newsroom has gone from over 40 employees to what on its current staff listing is seven. It's really hard to run a robust newsroom when you have seven people working in your newsroom.

FLORIDO: At the end of the day, Gannett is a business. Most newspapers are businesses with a mission to inform the public, yes, but also driven by profit motive. So do you see any solutions here for the local communities that are being left behind in these sort of information deserts?

BENTON: I think it is very difficult to manage the transition from a print daily to an effective digital news outlet. It's often much easier to start from scratch. It's not happening everywhere. But there are communities across the country where smart digital outlets are growing to the point where in some cases they have bigger newsrooms than the local daily newspaper does. It is possible, but it's a challenge.

FLORIDO: What do you see in the future of local news?

BENTON: I see a lot more uncovered city council meetings. I see a lot more corruption that doesn't get noticed. I see a lot more uninformed voters, more people who take their cues for how they view their government from national media and the politicized world there as opposed to their local government. There certainly are bright spots. There are green shoots going up, but the challenge is just very difficult.

FLORIDO: That was Joshua Benton. He's a senior writer at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Adrian Florido.

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