Could News Bloom in News Deserts?  By Howard Husock American Enterprise Institute

Key Points

  • Due to the steady decline of print news in America, many Americans now live in news deserts, where there is no newspaper covering local issues. The absence of information on local news and local politics weakens our communities and our political process.
  • Despite this trend, over 100 new papers or online local news sites have opened within the past several years. To stay in business, they have experimented with new approaches to staffing and funding.
  • It may be time to expand the role of government or philanthropy in supporting local news, which produces countless benefits for communities but is rapidly disappearing.

Read the PDF.

REALITY CHECK.  Three years ago, Simon Owens looked into Patch, the most prominent effort to remedy the problem.

But as I read article after article about the company’s health, one number kept jumping out at me: its editorial headcount. Back during its AOL days, it employed around 500 journalists, with roughly one editor assigned to each hyperlocal site. Now, it has an editorial staff of 120, even though it’s more than doubled the number of local verticals. That means it employs one journalist for every 10 locations.

So what type of coverage does Patch actually offer? Out of all the journalists who wrote about its profitability, only Recode’s Peter Kafka touched upon the issue. “If your idea of a local news operation involves a team of reporters and editors that can exhaustively cover your hometown, you will be disappointed with Patch, which usually assigns a single journalist to cover multiple towns,” he wrote in 2019. “Those reporters then generate five to 10 stories a day, which means those stories are almost always generated quickly.” Patch president Warren St. John admitted to Kafka that “we’re not as deep as we aspire to be. We’re acutely aware of what we’re capable of and what we’re not capable of.”

Next, I went back to Patch’s homepage and then navigated to a cluster of sites around Tampa, Florida. Again, I opened 10 articles at random and then went through them one by one. Out of those 10 articles, only one article seemed to contain some original reporting, though it was sometimes hard to tell. An article about how Tampa doctors were utilizing telemedicine had several quotes from doctors in it, but when I Googled the quotes, I found that some came from press releases, while others may have come from an actual interview.

In fact, I noticed suspect sourcing on a few articles. Here’s a quote from my notes I made while reading an article about a local politician distributing unemployment applications: “At first I thought this maybe had some original quotes in it, but after Googling some of them I found them on other websites, which seems fishy. The reporter certainly isn’t going out of their way to say where the quotes are coming from.”