Production workers stack newspapers onto a cart at a printing and distribution plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. News deserts afflict all types of communities, but theyâ€™ve hit rural America especially hard. Angela Major/The Janesville Gazette via AP
Journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy lives in a news desert. She says there’s little local media coverage of Scotland County, North Carolina, among the poorest in the Tar Heel state. Her television news broadcasts come from neighboring South Carolina.
As a result, it’s difficult to find local news or information on relevant state issues that she could vote on, Abernathy said.
A vibrant free press, protected from government interference by the First Amendment, can hold the powerful to account and empower readers to make informed decisions on major issues. Newspapers and other local media outlets reflect community values, and when they go under, there is less coverage of the high school sports and community events that bind people together.
Amid the steady decline in local news, some states are considering stepping in to support the Fourth Estate. But critics worry that doing so might undermine the press’s role as a government watchdog.
“There’s this adversarial relationship that exists and needs to exist,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
News deserts — communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news — are especially prevalent in rural America. More than 500 of the 1,800 newspapers that have closed or merged since 2004 were in rural communities, according to a 2018 report, “The Expanding News Desert,” written by Abernathy for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.
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