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Democracy in the Desert

Solutions for local news deserts

David Brancaccio and Alex Schroeder Apr 9, 2024
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"More than a dozen states have either passed legislation or are considering legislation to help local news," said Tim Franklin, who leads the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. artisteer/Getty Images
Democracy in the Desert

Solutions for local news deserts

David Brancaccio and Alex Schroeder Apr 9, 2024
Heard on:
"More than a dozen states have either passed legislation or are considering legislation to help local news," said Tim Franklin, who leads the Medill Local News Initiative at Northwestern University. artisteer/Getty Images
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They say all politics is local. So where’s the local news coverage this election year? Members of the “Marketplace Morning Report” team have been traveling to what are called “news deserts” to hear about the business models that are failing or informing voters as they make their choices on ballots. Earlier in the year, we reported from Val Verde County, Texas, and we heard from North Carolina, where sparse local news coverage may have played a part in a congressional election so questionable, there was a do-overWe also listened to voices from a news desert that’s about an hour’s drive from the center of American politics. And we had an extended conversation with a man in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, who had to pull the plug on the local newspaper he published for years and now gets by by printing campus newspapers.

Now, it’s time to dig into the solutions cropping up to solve this problem.


Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative has done key work on the decline of local news in America. But it also has a lot of information about ways to remedy this issue.

Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, leads the Medill Local News Initiative. Franklin spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio about ways to bolster the sustainability of local news. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: So it’s not just all the desertification process here. I mean, good, old American entrepreneurship seems to be coming to bear in some spots. Are you encouraged at some level?

Tim Franklin: I’m actually more encouraged now than I was five years ago. I would step back for a second and just say that what we’re living through is a historic, tectonic change in how news is produced, consumed and paid for. But that said, there are some new innovations that are happening in local news that I think are showing some promise for the future.

Brancaccio: Our friends in the U.K. have a system where you have to pay a license for your TV, and that helps underwrite some coverage. What are we doing here that stands out for you? Give me some examples.

Franklin: There are examples, I think, of legacy news organizations that are successfully pivoting from print to digital, and also from an advertising-based business model to a reader revenue business model. The Boston Globe, I think, is one great example. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Seattle Times. I would note that all of those are independently and locally owned.

And then you look at some of the new models. So there’s been a bit of a trend of converting for-profit news organizations to nonprofit status. Two of the most prominent examples are The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Salt Lake Tribune. Now, that provides some advantages that help. You’re not at the whims of quarter-to-quarter profit pressures. But it’s also not necessarily a panacea, either. You still have to pay the journalists, and you still have to pay the bills. Nonetheless, I think we’re gonna see more of that in coming years.

And we’re also seeing for-profit and nonprofit digital startups that are filling voids in the market. So one of my favorite examples is right here in Chicago with Block Club Chicago. They did a crowdfunding campaign. And they’re now doing hyperlocal news in neighborhoods in Chicago where the big dailies — the Tribune, the Sun-Times — have had to pull back on their coverage. And they’re filling a valuable void in the market. They’re also doing financially very well, raising money from philanthropy. They’re doing events, they’re doing memberships and subscriptions. But Block Club Chicago, I think, is a great example of what could be a digital, hyperlocal news future.

Brancaccio: Big newspaper in Oxford, Ohio, went out of business earlier this year. And so Miami University, which is nearby, it has a student newspaper. So in response, they’re dedicating part of the student newspaper to covering local issues. And one commends them for stepping into a void. But one wonders if a student newspaper can provide the aggressive journalism that often communities need to keep politicians accountable.

Franklin: I think there is a role for journalism schools. And we’re seeing it more and more — the University of Kansas has an initiative, University of Georgia, here at Northwestern, The Daily Northwestern covers the city of Evanston. One of the challenges there is you don’t have the institutional knowledge that you have with an experienced staff of journalists. And then you also have the not-so-insignificant problem of summer break. But I do think we are going to see more journalism schools stepping into the breach.

Brancaccio: You mentioned something earlier about locally owned newspapers that are thriving. Now the converse would be a remote owner. Can you talk a little bit about the relevance of having a locally run company responsible for the local media?

Franklin: We’ve seen with some of the big chains that in an effort to cut costs and preserve profits, they’ve stripped out newsrooms, they have distant editors from other parts of the state, distant publishers. And so you don’t have that community engagement that you have with a local owner or a local editor. You miss that human touch, but you also miss what’s happening in the community on a day-to-day basis, and you’re a bit removed and unplugged from what’s happening in the community. And, of course, a local owner has a vested interest in making it work financially and editorially in a community.

Brancaccio: Now, I noticed part of your report focuses on some bipartisan legislation, House of Representatives, that seeks to help struggling local news outlets. Does that have any chance of becoming law?

Franklin: Even though it has bipartisan support — the Community News and Small Business Support Act, which would give tax credits for organizations that hire local reporters or for small businesses that advertise in local news outlets — there’s just so little getting out of Congress these days that it’s hard to see it happening at this point, unfortunately. I will say, though, there is a lot of activity happening at the state level. So there are now more than a dozen states that have either passed legislation or are considering legislation to help local news. And that legislation takes many different forms, but we are seeing momentum building at the state level to address this crisis. And I think that’s encouraging.

Brancaccio: Let’s also talk about artificial intelligence. Now, look, there’s plenty of reasons to be terrified of the technology. It certainly could do my current job, I think. That said, do you see some potential for adding some firepower to local coverage through technology?

Franklin: I do. We’re still in early stages. There been some experiments with AI generating local news stories. Some of those experiments have not gone well because the AI system has hallucinated or provided incorrect information. But I think these systems are only going to get better and more sophisticated and more accurate with time. So my feeling is that if AI generated local news off of what I call commodity news, or basic kind of everyday news — so these would be meeting covers of council meetings or county commission meetings or zoning meetings — so that you could free up a human reporter to go out and do original investigative reporting or enterprise reporting in the community, I think that could be a real win all the way around. Now, if AI is simply used to lay off more journalists, then I think AI could end up being detrimental. But it’s a tool. And it’s a tool that could be used well to benefit communities and news organizations. The question is how that tool is used.

Brancaccio: Some of these bright spots, at least for now, depend on philanthropic money. I mean, it sounds like some charitable organizations are, what, seeing the light?

Franklin: David, there’s been an absolute revelation, I think, in the past year when it comes to the need for philanthropic support for local news. And I think foundations across the country are realizing the importance of local news to our democracy. So the MacArthur Foundation announced back in September that it’s formed a consortium. It’s now about 30-plus foundations around the U.S. And it’s going to be pumping at least more than half a billion dollars over the next five years into local news, which is obviously a massive sum of money.

You know, as the CEO of the Knight Foundation said a couple of weeks ago, philanthropy is not a business model. And also keep in mind that about 90% or so of all the local news outlets in the U.S. are for-profit, commercial news outlets. I don’t think that nonprofit journalism alone is going to be the new business model. But I will say that I think this philanthropic effort could be a bridge that can help a lot of news organizations around the country get to the other side — to get from this moment of peril to a moment of sustainability. And that’s the hope.

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