Since 2005, Texas has lost more news reporters per capita than any state other than California and New Jersey, according to a new national study of the state of local news. During this period, Texas lost about a third of its newspapers – 211 closed, leaving 423.
The State of Local News 2022, a report released Wednesday by the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, notes that more than a tenth of Texas counties — 27 of 254 — no longer have a newspaper. local, daily or weekly.
“The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and misinformation, political polarization, the erosion of trust in the media, and a gaping digital and economic divide between citizens” , wrote report author Penelope Muse Abernathy, who also provided Texas-specific data to the Texas Tribune. “In communities without a credible source of local information, voter turnout drops, government and corporate corruption increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and cash.”
The United States still has 6,377 newspapers – 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies – but each week averages two or more. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers (about 2,500) and is on track to lose another third by 2025. The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out more than 300 weekly newspapers , serving communities ranging in population from a few hundred people to tens of thousands.
Over the past 17 years, the Lone Star State has lost about eight newspaper reporters per 10,000 residents, while California and New Jersey have each lost about 10 at the same rate.
According to the report, there are approximately 545 state and local digital-only, for-profit and non-profit sites in the United States today. Most employ six or fewer full-time reporters. Texas is home to a number of digital-only nonprofit newsrooms, including The Texas Tribune, founded in 2009; San Antonio Report, founded in 2012 as Rivard Report; the Austin Monitor, founded in 2013; El Paso Matters, founded in 2019; and Fort Worth Report, founded last year. In January, five foundations announced they would invest more than $20 million to create a nonprofit newsroom in Houston.
“However, even established local digital news outlets often fail to attract monthly traffic from local TV and newspaper sites, somewhat diminishing the impact of the stories they produce,” the report found. local news status. “Four out of ten local sites are now non-profit, supported by a combination of grants, sponsorships and donations. But whether non-profit or for-profit, the vast majority of these sites are located in major cities, leaving much of the rest of the country uncovered.
Some 70 million Americans, or about one-fifth of the population, live in the 210 counties without a newspaper or the 1,560 counties with only one newspaper, usually a weekly. These so-called “information deserts” tend to be poorer, older, and lack the affordable, reliable broadband that residents need to access information on their smartphones, laptops, or desktop computers.
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Since 2005, when newspaper revenues topped $50 billion, newsroom revenues and employment have fallen about 60% in the United States. Newspaper chains own more than two-thirds of the country’s daily newspapers; many are owned or indebted to hedge funds, private equity groups, or other investment firms that have often cut jobs, sold newspaper mills and office buildings, and pared remaining properties.
The NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers of America, organized unions for reporters at the Austin American-Statesman, Dallas Morning News, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram; the unions negotiate their first contracts.
Daily and weekly newspapers are starting to look alike, according to the report. During the pandemic, many daily newspapers have reduced the number of publication days to six or fewer days per week and increased their reliance on electronic editions, which mimic the appearance of traditional newspaper pages. Meanwhile, many weekly newspapers, especially those in fast-growing and prosperous suburbs, began producing daily e-newsletters for their subscribers and updating their websites more frequently. Yet most of their revenue comes from advertising local businesses.
The report tells a story of inequality that is familiar in America. Affluent, larger and growing communities are more likely to have support from for-profit and non-profit print and digital media; they have a base of advertisers, subscribers and donors who can afford to pay. Poorer, smaller communities, “where residents live paycheck to paycheck, are less attractive to advertisers and have, for the most part, been overlooked by potential philanthropic funders and digital entrepreneurs,” according to the report.
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However, even major city newspapers have not been immune to a drop in circulation. The UK trade publication Press Gazette, citing data from the Alliance for Audited Media, found that newspaper readership had fallen significantly over the past year as the cost of labor and materials was increasing and consumers were continuing their relentless migration to digital platforms. The Dallas Morning News has 65,369 print readership and the Houston Chronicle 65,084, down 10% and 17%, respectively, over the past year.
There are a growing number of policy proposals to combat the erosion of local news across the United States. Congress has considered a proposal to give local news employers a payroll tax credit for the journalists they employ. Other proposals that have been put forward include allowing taxpayers to take a credit for digital news subscriptions – as Canada has done – or giving a credit to small businesses that advertise with local publications. In 2018, New Jersey established a local news fund that distributes grants for local journalism projects; Illinois, Massachusetts and New York are considering engaging in similar efforts.
Micheal Hodges, executive director of the Texas Press Association, which represents nearly 400 newspapers across Texas, many of which are family weeklies, said the organization’s membership has shrunk by about 600.
“It’s a fact that many have closed, because the business model has changed,” he said, adding that he sees “the destruction of America’s rural downtown” as the real problem. .
“The big problem is that we have a population problem in rural counties in Texas,” he said. “If there are no stores, there is no advertising. In the 19th century, newspapers were historically the first businesses to open when a new town was settled – a church, a newspaper, a bank. And in the end, it’s the other way around.
Hodges said the statistic of 27 counties in Texas without newspapers might look more dramatic than it is. “In Loving County, Texas, there are no newspapers, and I dare say there are no grocery stores either. It’s not a wasteland of information, it’s a wasteland of people. (The county is the least populated in the country; the 2020 census estimated it to have 64 people.)
A number of small Texas newspapers are still making money, but their aging editors can’t find young family members to take over the business. The University of Texas at Austin has created a rural journalism pipeline project to train a new generation of small-town editors.
Hodges cited two local newspapers — the Vega Enterprise in the Panhandle and the Naples Monitor in northeast Texas — as examples of newspapers bouncing back.
“They are being revived by older publishers who had to close them for health reasons, but in both cases the community has wrapped its arms around these journals,” Hodges said. “Readers included subscription renewals with their recovery cards.”
Not all publications are so lucky. OD and Carolyn W. Anderson run the Rocksprings Record and the Texas Mohair Weekly, which dates back to 1893, in a remote part of southwest Texas. The weekly has two part-time employees, as well as the couple. The town of Rocksprings has a population of approximately 1,200, and the newspaper is the only one in Edwards County, which has a population of 2,000.
“My husband and I are 78 and 84, we have health issues,” Carolyn Anderson said in a phone interview. “We have two daughters, but they have very separate lives. Both worked in the newspaper, but they don’t want to take it back. This Thursday June 30 is our last issue, unless a new owner takes a step forward. We have some interest, but not enough at the moment.
Disclosure: The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the University of Texas at Austin financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Grandstand.