News Take Episode 110: Update on News Deserts and Local News Trends with Penny Muse Abernathy and Tim Franklin

Guests: Penny Muse Abernathy and Tim Franklin, the Medill Journalism School Local News Initiative at Northwestern University

“In this vast country, newspapers have historically been the prime, if not the sole source, for most small and mid-size independent communities. So, if you lose a newspaper, you’re losing the person who shows up to cover the school board meeting, the person who shows up to cover the county commissioner or even the zoning policy changes that can be quite controversial and affect the long-term quality of life of a community. The good news is I think there are a lot of things that are going on that can stem that, that range from policy solutions to new funding opportunities to new business development.

– Penny Muse Abernathy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

“What comes behind a news desert? We know that Facebook Groups emerge in these communities. … But as we know even as well-intentioned as those good people can be, that’s not the same as vetted, reported local news and local journalism. As so what happens is you have the, in some cases, unintentional spread of misinformation in those communities, and especially at a time when our democracy is already facing challenges, and at a time when we’re coming out of a pandemic, we know the need for accurate, credible, reliable news and information.”

– Tim Franklin, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

What is the state of local news today? What’s changed, where are there still concerns? What makes a community vulnerable to becoming a news desert? What does the future hold for the print newspaper? What are the most powerful opportunities for policy to help local news grow and thrive? What are some examples of positive outcomes and how can other news publishers emulate their success?

News/Media Alliance President & CEO David Chavern talks with the authors of now well-known research throughout the industry on the phenomenon known as news deserts, Penny Muse Abernathy and Tim Franklin of the Medill School of Journalism’s Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. In this thought-provoking conversation, Abernathy and Franklin share the findings from their latest update to The State of Local News report, released this summer. The previous edition of the report by Abernathy, released by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2020, revealed startling trends on the prevalence of news deserts, finding one-quarter of U.S. newspapers have closed since 2005. But there are reasons to be optimistic, and Abernathy and Franklin provide their thoughts on how the trend could yet be reversed. The two journalists-turned-academicians discuss innovations in digital publishing, as well as the introduction of non-advertising focused revenue models, including subscriptions and membership models, nonprofit organization structures, and other revenue models, that they say could offer a path for publishers who are living in areas that are vulnerable to becoming a news desert, as well as those who want to start a newspaper in a news desert.

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Speaker bios

Penny Muse Abernathy is a visiting professor at the Medill School. While at Medill, Abernathy is collaborating with the school’s Local News Initiative and Spiegel Research Center on local news-related projects, research and teaching. Abernathy is a former senior business executive with The New York Times, Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal, and was the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina from 2008 to 2020. 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.

Tim Franklin is Senior Associate Dean, Professor and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at the Medill School , where he is leading the Local News Initiative, a research-and-development project designed to bolster the sustainability of local news in America, and the Medill Metro Media Lab, a project funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to strengthen the local news ecosystem and journalism education in the Chicago area. Franklin was appointed earlier this year by Governor J.B. Pritzker to serve on the Illinois Local Journalism Task Force, a bipartisan group studying the local news crisis in the state and recommending potential policy solutions. Before joining Medill in 2017, Franklin was President of The Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank.

Additional Resources

The State of Local News 2022 (Medill School of Journalism’s Local News Initiative, Northwestern University)

 

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