News deserts, areas lacking access to reliable local news coverage, have become a growing concern, affecting approximately 70 million people across the United States, even stretching into Canada.
The absence of local news can lead to a loss of information, decreased community engagement, erosion of accountability, and negative economic impacts.
However, media experts said publishers could still implement several strategies to combat news deserts and keep local news alive.
“Local news plays a significant role in informing communities and holding local officials accountable,” said Keenan Beavis, founder of Longhouse Media, one of Canada’s largest Indigenous-owned digital marketing agencies.
Several media experts also noted that collaboration among newspapers, especially those owned by African Americans, could bring about positive change.
For instance, if the more than 200 African American-owned newspapers and media companies in the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) collaborated, they could significantly contribute to addressing news deserts and amplifying marginalized voices.
To that end, Word In Black began on June 7, 2021.
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, 10 NNPA member publications – AFRO News, The Atlanta Voice, Dallas Weekly, Houston Defender, Michigan Chronicle, New York Amsterdam News, Sacramento Observer, Seattle Medium, St. Louis American, and The Washington Informer – launched a news collaborative unlike any other in the industry.
“They realized that the voice of Black America needs to be amplified and elevated not just locally but nationally,” the collaboration’s founders wrote.
“Our publishers saw what was happening in the United States as a call to action — one which the Black press has answered since the founding of the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827.”
To bring Word In Black to life, the publishers said they connected with the Local Media Association, which champions collaboration and helps local media companies discover new and sustainable business models.
The publishers understood, among other things, that, in news deserts, residents are deprived of essential information, hindering their ability to participate actively in local decision-making processes.
This lack of accountability and transparency can lead to disinformation, corruption, and a weakened democratic process, said author Marie Davis of Salisbury, N.C.
“News desert is emptiness and lack of news within various communities that tend to apply towards poorer, older, and uneducated residents, making them feel unimportant and preventing them from obtaining knowledge of what’s really going on in the world today,” Davis said.
“This causes them to depend on social media for daily news, sometimes leading to misinformed information or fake news. It also makes it worse for those that do not have access to computers,” she said.
Davis added that news Desert also affects residents’ minds, making it difficult for them to determine what is legitimate or not and causing them to doubt who is trustworthy, which can lead to chaos.
Moreover, Davis and others said news deserts negatively impact the local economy by reducing business advertising opportunities and limiting resources for news organizations.
Nonprofit organizations and community-based initiatives can play a crucial role in bridging news deserts, as collaboration between local news outlets and these organizations could help secure funding, expand coverage, and reach underserved communities.
According to Tony Bartelme, Pierre Manigault’s Charleston Post and Courier has exposed corruption due to collaboration with community newspapers across South Carolina, triggering state investigations and audits.
“I think that there’s a second life for newspapers,” Manigualt told CBS News.
“I think that we’ll survive this. It’s an evolution, and newspapers just need to evolve to the new digital world. And I think we’re well on our way to doing that.”
Communities also can advocate for government policies that support local journalism.
“We should prioritize media literacy and civic education – especially amongst young people – so that citizens understand the importance of local journalism in their day-to-day lives as well as its long-term impact on society,” emphasized Anthony Buzzetta, an AI & tech expert, and New York University graduate.
Buzzetta said that by highlighting the importance of local news to policymakers, communities can create an environment that fosters the growth and sustainability of local journalism.
He added that government intervention and support can help ensure that communities have access to reliable and independent news sources.
Additionally, local news outlets can explore innovative approaches and leverage digital platforms to reach wider audiences and generate revenue.
“By taking advantage of technology and social media platforms, news organizations can expand their reach, engage a broader audience, and ensure the survival of local journalism,” suggested Keenan Beavis, founder of Longhouse Media.
This shift towards digital platforms allows for greater flexibility and opportunities to provide news content to diverse readers, he noted.
“To keep local news alive, it’s crucial for individuals to actively support their local newspapers and news outlets,” advised Michaela Melo, a marketing executive.
By subscribing to a local paper or donating to local news outlets, individuals can contribute to the sustainability and ability of these organizations to deliver valuable local news coverage.
Financial support from the community plays an essential role in fostering community connections and holding power accountable, Melo stated.
News deserts significantly threaten democracy, civic engagement, and public accountability, several media experts asserted.
However, many expressed belief that local news can be revitalized and used to ensure that communities remain informed, engaged, and connected by promoting collaboration, advocating for government support, embracing digital platforms, and actively supporting local journalism.
“Local news keeps communities informed about local events, government decisions, and issues directly impacting their lives,” Beavis stated.”
“By recognizing the importance of local news, individuals can contribute to the overall well-being of their communities and hold power accountable.”