What We Lose When We Lose Local News

We live in a time of multiple crises, and–like all such times–there are a number of contributing causes. Arguably, one major contributor to Americans’ current inability to work together or even communicate is the media environment we inhabit.

Much has been written about disinformation and our improved ability to live in informational “bubbles.” Other consequences have received less attention.

That’s especially true when the loss is local–and it is at the local level where we have lost the most. Between newspaper closures (since 2004, the United States has lost a quarter— 2,100 – of its local newspapers, including 70 dailies and over 2,000 weeklies) and so-called  “ghost” papers–newspapers that are theoretically still functioning, but no longer have the ability to adequately cover local news–the situation at the local level is grim.

A recent article in the Atlantic focused on what we lose when we lose local news. “What We Lost When Gannett Came to Town,” was a “deep dive” into the loss of The Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, Iowa.

As the author noted, in her youth, the local newspaper was where teenagers looked for summer jobs, families found weekend tag sales and folks learned about openings of new stores and restaurants. “The paper was where we first learned that my close friend’s father had died in a Mississippi water-skiing accident. It was where my high-school Girl Scout troop got a half-page spread our senior year.”

Larger metropolitan papers ran fewer of those more homey items, but gave residents “news you can use” about local government agencies, schools and the goings-on at the State legislature. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of residents once read the morning paper, and thus–as I have previously noted–occupied a common information environment.

The Indianapolis Star was never a particularly distinguished example of journalism, but after it was acquired by Gannett, it descended into irrelevance. The Hawk Eye may have served a small Iowa town, but the author’s description of what happened in the wake of its purchase by Gannett could have been written here.

The Hawk Eye isn’t dead yet, which sets it apart from many other local newspapers in America. Its staff, now down to three overstretched news reporters, still produces a print edition six days a week. But the paper is dying. Its pages are smaller than they used to be, and there are fewer of them. Even so, wide margins and large fonts are used to fill space. The paper is laid out by a remote design team and printed 100 miles away in Peoria, Illinois; if a reader doesn’t get her paper in the morning, she is instructed to dial a number that will connect her to a call center in the Philippines. Obituaries used to be free; now, when your uncle dies, you have to pay to publish a write-up.

These days, most of The Hawk Eye’s articles are ripped from other Gannett-owned Iowa publications, such as The Des Moines Register and the Ames Tribune, written for a readership three hours away. The Opinion section, once an arena for local columnists and letter writers to spar over the merits and morals of riverboat gambling and railroad jobs moving to Topeka, is dominated by syndicated national columnists.

Why does this matter?

Research confirms that the loss of a properly functioning local paper leads to diminished participation in municipal elections, which become less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, driving costs up for local government. Disinformation proliferates because people start to get their “facts” from social media.

But as the author notes, the decline of The Hawk Eye also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.

When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered: political corruption, school-board scandals, zoning-board hearings, police misconduct. They are right to worry about that. But often overlooked are the more quotidian stories, the ones that disappear first when a paper loses resources: stories about the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at Crapo Park, the town-hall meeting about the new swimming-pool design, and the tractor games during the Denmark Heritage Days.

These stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

The stories that connect the residents of larger cities and towns may differ from those she describes, but they are equally important. And thanks to rapacious companies like Gannett, they’ve been equally lost.

And then there’s Alden Global Capital, which I’ll discuss tomorrow….


  1. For MOST of my life, towns of any size actually had TWO newspapers (or more). In my experience, the morning paper was more Republican and the afternoon paper was the Democrat paper. Chicago had the Tribune and the Sun Times, Madison WI had the Wisconsin state Journal and the Capital Times, Indy had the Star and the News, San Francisco had The Chronicle and the Examiner. It all keeps changing. The Democratic leaning papers seem to be the first to close.

  2. There was probably a lot of sentimental sharing when the ponies stopped coming into town to deliver the mail, but what replaced it was way more convenient.

    Facebook was a social platform for sharing. So instead of having ten reporters gathering the news and sharing it with others, we had the potential to have 5,000 in our town cover what was going on.

    All those topics you said went missing are easily covered by local citizens in a format called citizen journalism. We saw it during the George Floyd protests when people discovered their Smartphones were innovative. Even the killing of George Floyd was caught live on a Smartphone.

    Our local philanthropists (oligarchs who control everything behind the scenes) put together another nonprofit used to “steer the community.” They broke down into sub-committees to gather human input on how to enhance the community. One of these was a communication committee to address the issues of the shrinking newspaper. A couple of us had mentioned that we needed to begin transferring what the newspaper was doing over to a social media platform and a Wiki so locals could continue gathering what was necessary for the community.

    The editor of the newspaper was there and took offense. She wanted to rebuild the newspaper. She refused to let go of the fact the newspaper industry was drying up locally. We said to cut it down to 3 days of publishing, and she got offended over that. That was a decade ago.

    The oligarchs and Chamber president did take my ideas. They started a business and city propaganda website to post their press releases because the newspaper guy would twist everything written. HE created the news. LOL

    All the pieces are in place today. However, the problem is egos and control. Wikileaks set up the exact model our Founders envisioned when they issued the powers of the free press.

    Our government has been trying to destroy Wikileaks, and the CIA was thinking up ways to kill Julian Assange, while our Mainstream Media doesn’t say a word or insist on his release.

    And, that is the problem with the media. And that is why 14% of the population trusts them.

    They gave away their power to hold the government accountable. Without that power, they are nothing but a social media platform. Older people want their papers back because of the nostalgia while teens use their Smartphones. If you’re a teen in China, that phone is your hotline to the government, which tracks all your medical info and more. 5G, and it’s how they were able to track and contain the COVID outbreak.

  3. I am one of those oldsters who likes a paper 7 days a week. Mine has decreased in size tremendously, the local news is slim or none. And I get my invoice for renewal a week or so past the expiration date. Complying to their own timeliness for delivery is also an issue many days. Thank you Gannett for such a great publication and service. NOT!

  4. Patmcc, strangely, exactly the opposite was the case in Ft. Wayne, which enjoyed two major papers, The morning Journal Gazette (Democrat) and the evening News Sentinel (Republican). But the NS folded a few years ago while the JG is still printing 7 editions per week and is still independently owned by a family with strong local ties. But it’s no longer aligned with Democrats – they had to move to the center-right as much of their market moved to the extreme right, and even off the political scale. And they’re one of the few papers left outside of Indy that has a reporter (who is excellent btw) cover the shenanigans in our statehouse.

    Obviously it has become a much smaller paper with less local news than before and I have no idea how long it can hang on.

    The little one-section twice-weekly paper in the rural IN county where we live was taken over by a company named Hurd Media, based in Wabash. It has one reporter/editor and one sportswriter locally and it is printed in Wabash and shipped up. I know nothing about Hurd Media or its owner but so far I have been impressed with the improvements made to the paper. It now features a more readable format (including color photos!) that makes it more attractive. And it covers most, if not all, major stories coming out of our County government and 4 incorporated towns, as well as the 3 small school districts. The editor also occasionally writes a pro-environment opinion piece, a welcome and long-needed addition in a county with tremendous natural resources under constant threat of corporate farming.

    Our county is run by a Republican oligarchy…all open seats in the Council and Board of Commissioners are initially filled by a majority vote of precinct committee chairs (this is the same in many of our GQP-dominated counties). The former owner and publisher of the paper figured heavily in the local GQP and used the power of the pen to sound the horn when it made the party in charge look good and ignored stories that were less than flattering. We might have less lines printed on local news now but what we have is more objective.

    But if Todd’s idea of “citizen journalism” is stuff random people post on Facebook, they we are royally screwed, especially given that Facebook’s business model is based on artificial intel algorithms that promote posts that elicit rage from viewers in order to generate clicks and revenue.

  5. No, it’s definitely not random posts, Patrick. It actually requires coordination and leadership to set up, but once established, it will go on its own. The centerpiece has to be a government reporter because that is the point of the free press. That is where it derives its power. It’s what connects the people to the press, the press serves the people.

    However, if your local oligarchs are anything like mine, they rather enjoy the crumbling of the Gannett newspaper.

    And, I’m almost sure that Indianapolis’s oligarchs enjoy the demise of their Gannett rag. With nobody holding the crooks accountable, it’s a free reign. The crap on TV is a joke.

  6. There once was a Democratic leaning afternoon paper in Indy, but it was the “Times” not the “News.” The “News was the cheaper, smaller, smarmier little brother of the “Star.” I agree with Todd’s point (not about Assange or Wiki), but the larger view that media has changed and it will take time to sort it out. I imagine people felt the same when the town crier was replaced by the newspaper. We will eventually adapt and bad grammar, which is just as prevalent on social media as it is in the local daily paper, will live on. I really miss James J. Kilpatrick.

  7. All of the above is true. In Indiana, the Paxton Media Group is the bone-picker of this genre. After Gannett has sucked the life out of smaller papers, Paxton swoops in and squeezes the last bits of blood. No photographers, inexperienced reporters unconnected to the community and terribly overworked. Ever-increasing subscription rates. It is tragic.

  8. How about solution ideas folks? “Local NPR” funded by United Way? College journalism/communication depts networking?

  9. Lester, brilliant minds must think alike. I too have wondered what it would take for our local NPR and FYI stations to take up the local news. I’d donate to that!

  10. As I was driving this newspaper, NPR had a lengthy piece on the effect of Alden buying newspapers.

  11. One mo idea…create reporter internships through community colleges – get reporting, support struggling students, get more truth…mentoring via retired journalists?????

    It is up to us…folks…

  12. I’ve been Tweeting that NPR is the perfect model to take over the role of the free press. It’s also why the government cut its funding — it would have to rely on corporate philanthropy.

    The free press must be fully supported by the people so the press can work for the people.

    A journalist’s job cannot be in jeopardy because of his journalism. This is why the international press community and human rights organizations are screaming hypocrite at Joe Biden over trying to extradite Julian Assange. Journalism is NOT spying! We need courageous journalists and that means they shouldn’t fear for their job. Julian knew this would be the issue every time he published a big reveal.

    It also means we can’t have the NSA spying on every citizen. These programs need shut down. Anybody with a whiff of understanding on how things work in this world knows what the NSA/CIA are doing.

    And by the way, the people now believe that government corruption is the number one problem.


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