Already in a sharp downward spiral, the local news industry was hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic. The worst blows were taken by newspapers — businesses that, as a group, had never recovered from the digital revolution and the 2008 recession. Between 2005 and the start of the pandemic, about 2,100 newspapers closed their doors. Since covid struck, at least 80 more papers have gone out of business, as have an undetermined number of other local publications, like the California Sunday Magazine, which folded last fall — and then won a Pulitzer Prize eight months later.
Those papers that survived are still facing difficult straits. Many have laid off scores of reporters and editors — according to Pew Research Center, the newspaper industry lost an astonishing 57 percent of its employees between 2008 and 2020 — making these publications a mere specter of their former selves. They are now “ghost newspapers”: outlets that may bear the proud old name of yore but no longer do the job of thoroughly covering their communities and providing original reporting on matters of public interest.
Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, describes the loss of the Sun-Advocate in Massachusetts as “a grim picture but not nearly as catastrophic as in some parts of the country.” After all, he told me, there are other news organizations nearby, including the Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn and WickedLocal.com, a digital site run by Gannett that serves swaths of Massachusetts. (Gannett had owned the Sun-Advocate until its closure.)
By contrast, in many regions of the country, there is no local news coverage at all, or next to none. These areas have come to be known as “news deserts” — a term used by academics and researchers to refer to areas where coverage of the community by local news outlets is minimal or nonexistent. It’s in such places that the collapse of local news is being felt most dramatically. Then again, even if you don’t live in a defined news desert, you may have noticed that your regional paper long ago ditched actively covering your community if it is outside the immediate city and first-ring suburbs.