In 2009, just as the apocalypse befell the newspaper industry but while local news was still in relative abundance, many readers gave it an apathetic shrug. A Pew Research Center survey from that year found that an astonishing 42 percent said they would miss their paper “not much” or “not at all” if it vanished. They said this even though 74 percent conceded that civic life would suffer “a lot” or “some” if their local newspaper died. Their apathy ultimately expressed itself in financial terms. Weekday newspaper circulation has dropped from about 55.8 million households to about 28.6 million in the past two decades. More than 2,000 newspapers have vanished since 2004 (most of them weeklies), creating what some call “news deserts.” And revenues have just about halved in the past decade, as has newsroom size, making it harder to report local news. Readers keep shrugging, too. A more recent Pew survey (2018) found that only 14 percent of respondents had paid for local news in the previous year.


The decline of local news
 has paralleled the decline of the newspaper audience. In 1940, when the population was less than half of today’s, American newspaper circulation was greater. Newspapers lost audience not just to the Internet but to cable, TV and radio, as well as to the non-news functions found on smartphones. The advertising dollars that once helped to support local news fled for the Web, where ads could be better paired to content—sometimes at a lower cost—to sell an advertiser’s wares. As Google economist Hal Varian put it in 2013, pure news had “very high social value to interested readers” but “low commercial value due to the difficulty of showing contextual relevant ads.”
There’s evidence that low-cost, quality national news online from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NBC and other outlets has siphoned off readers who might otherwise partake of local news. Newspapers also appear to have priced themselves out of the reach of many readers, jacking up the cost of subscriptions to cover the dive in advertising revenue. In 1980, for example, the Washington Post charged $92 a year for weekday and Sunday home delivery ($315 in today’s money). Today, the Post charges $1,160 annually for a lesser product. The Post isn’t alone, of course. Iris Chyi of the University of Texas notes that many regional newspapers have passed the $1,000 a year mark for subscriptions. That’s a lot of money in most family budgets—more than annual subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and HBO Max all together would cost you.