School board and city council meetings are going uncovered. Overstretched reporters receive promising tips about stories but have no time to follow up. Newspapers publish fewer pages or less frequently or, in hundreds of cases across the country, are shuttered completely.
All of this has added up to a crisis in local news coverage in the United States that has frayed communities and left many Americans woefully uninformed, according to a report by PEN America released on Wednesday.
“A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting they are kept in the dark,” the report said. “At a time when political polarization is increasing and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and more elusive than ever.”
The report, “Losing the News: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions,” paints a grim picture of the state of local news in every region of the country. The prelude is familiar to journalists: As print advertising revenue has plummeted, thousands of newspapers have been forced to cut costs, reduce their staffs or otherwise close.
And while the disruption has hampered the ability of newsrooms to fully cover communities, it also has damaged political and civic life in the United States, the report says, leaving many people without access to crucial information about where they live.
“That first draft of history is not being written — it has completely disappeared,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a nonprofit organization that celebrates literature and free expression. “That’s what is so chilling about this crisis.”
The authors of the report spoke to dozens of journalists, elected officials and activists, who described how cutbacks in local newsrooms have left communities in the dark and have failed to keep public and corporate officials accountable.
In 2017, when work on the PEN project began, researchers planned to call it “News Deserts,” examining pockets of the country where local news was scarce. But the more research the group did, the more it realized that the original scope was inadequate: Since 2004, more than 1,800 local print outlets have shuttered in the United States, and at least 200 counties have no newspaper at all.
“This was a national crisis,” Ms. Nossel said. “This was not about a few isolated areas that were drying up.”
Many Americans are completely unaware that local news is suffering. According to a Pew survey this year, 71 percent of Americans believe that their local news outlets are doing well financially. But, according to that report, only 14 percent say they have paid for or donated money to a local news source in the past year.
“They don’t realize that their local news outlet is under threat,” said Viktorya Vilk, manager of special projects for PEN, who was one of the report’s authors.
The decline of local news outlets threatens the reporting on public health crises in places like Flint, Mich., where residents voiced concern about the quality of their water to The Flint Journal long before the national media reported on the issue.
In Denver, a diminished local news presence — after the closure of The Rocky Mountain News and the shrunken Denver Post — has contributed to civic disengagement, one case study in the report says. Kevin Flynn, a former journalist turned City Council member, lamented the large number of people who seemed to be unaware of local elections, and the relative handful of reporters covering a quickly growing city. “It feels like we could all be getting away with murder right now,” Mr. Flynn said of public officials.
In some communities, a dearth of local news was associated with a population that was less aware of politics.
“Voting and consuming news — those things go hand in hand,” said Tom Huang, assistant managing editor of The Dallas Morning News.
One case study in the report shared the experience of Greg Barnes, who took a buyout in 2018 after three decades at The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina.
Toward the end of his time at the paper, the report said, “his job had essentially been filling holes for the rapidly diminishing staff instead of doing the sprawling investigations that had been his trademark.”
The report offers several solutions: It cites newer, digitally focused outlets like Chalkbeat, an online organization that focuses on education; Outlier, based in Detroit; and Block Club Chicago as examples of small but vibrant news sources that have stepped into the void.
But a more comprehensive solution is required, the report suggests, including private donations and expansions of public funding.