By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — What do Menominee County and Keweenaw County have in common?
They have no daily or weekly newspaper to call their own, and are among 171 such counties across the country, according to a national study by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
And the “news desert” situation is growing more dire as traditional news media continue to take economic hit after economic hit, circulation hit after circulation hit and advertising hit after advertising hit.
“From our very beginnings as a nation, newspapers have played a vital role in building community,” writes study author Penelope Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC.
“In an era of fake news, the diminishment of local newspapers poses yet another threat to the long-term vitality of communities.”
And while “a range of entrepreneurs – from journalists at television stations to founders of digital sites – are experimenting with new business models and new ways of providing local news to hundreds of communities that have lost their local newspapers, most ventures are clustered around major metro areas,” she writes.
One-fifth of U.S. newspapers have been shuttered or merged since 2004, the study said.
Michigan’s newspaperless counties aren’t located in – or even near – major metro areas. To the contrary, they’re among the state’s least populous. When it comes to residents, Keweenaw ranks 83rd among 83 counties, census data shows. Menominee holds 60th place.
Abernathy’s study, “The Expanding News Desert,” was distributed at the recent Knight Media Forum in Miami, where hundreds of journalists – many from public and nonprofit news outlets – journalism professors, industry experts, librarians and foundation leaders gathered to discuss the future of news in America.
A large contingent from Detroit attended, and Detroit Public Television live-streamed the event sponsored by the Knight Foundation. (In the interest of disclosure, I hold a MSU chair in environmental journalism endowed by the Knight Foundation, which paid my expenses to attend the media forum.)
Abernathy’s study also highlights another deeply troubling trend – what she labels “the rise of the ghost newspaper.” That happens in one of two ways: a larger metro or suburban daily buys a weekly or small daily, merges their news-gathering operations and transforms the formerly stand-alone newspaper into an advertising supplement, lifestyle specialty publication or free-distribution shopper.
Alternatively, a newspaper becomes a “ghost” when its newsroom staff level drops dramatically and those who remain can’t provide sufficient coverage of its community.
Recent developments in Michigan don’t bode well.
In January, for example, MLive Media Group announced the discontinuation of its seven weekly publications in suburban Grand Rapids: Southwest Advance, Grand Valley Advance, Cadence Advance, Northeast Advance, Northwest Advance, Penasee Globe Advance and Southeast Advance.
Company president Dan Gaydou was quoted as citing the costs of publishing and acknowledged that killing the papers would cost jobs as well. At the same time, he said, “We remain committed to our core mission of producing great local news and will continue to cover these communities on MLive.com as well as in the Grand Rapids Press print editions.”
Other Michigan papers have disappeared into oblivion in recent years, including the Bronson Journal in Branch County, the Michigan Citizen in Detroit and the Advisor & Source Newspapers in Macomb and Oakland counties.
But wait, you ask, aren’t local news websites filling the news and information gap?
Not enough. The study noted that about 400 such sites have been launched in communities that lost their newspapers over the past 15 years, but only two were in counties without any newspaper.
The experience in Flint highlights some of the logistical problems that online news outlets face, whether they’re nonprofit or for-profit.
The study discusses Flint Beat, started in 2017 by journalist Jiquanda Johnson to cover neighborhoods and city government. Money to finance the operation is one major problem. A second challenge is “engaging community residents” in a city where more than 40 percent of households lack an internet subscription – more than twice the national average.
This commentary is adapted from a column that originally appeared on Domemagazine.com.