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Since 2005, Texas has lost more newspaper journalists per capita than any state other than California and New Jersey, according to a new national study on the state of local news. Over that period, Texas lost about one-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 one-tenth of Texas counties — 27 of 254 — no longer have a local newspaper, daily or weekly.
“The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens,” wrote the report’s author, Penelope Muse Abernathy, who also provided Texas-specific data to The Texas Tribune. “In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.”
The United States still has 6,377 newspapers — 1,230 dailies and 5,147 weeklies — but every week an average of two or more close. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers (about 2,500), and it is on track to lose another third by 2025. The COVID-19 pandemic 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 lost about eight newspaper journalists per 10,000 residents, while California and New Jersey each lost around 10 at that same rate.
According to the report, the United States today has around 545 digital-only state and local sites, both for-profit and nonprofit. 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 the 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 that they would invest more than $20 million to create a nonprofit newsroom in Houston.
“However, even established local digital news organizations often fail to attract the monthly traffic of television and local newspaper sites, somewhat diminishing the impact of the stories they produce,” the State of Local News report found. “Four out of ten local sites are now nonprofit, supported by a combination of grants, sponsorship and donations. But whether nonprofit or for-profit, the vast majority of those sites are located in larger cities, leaving much of the rest of the country uncovered.”
Some 70 million Americans, about one-fifth of the population, live in the 210 counties without a newspaper or in the 1,560 counties with only one paper, usually a weekly. These so-called “news deserts” tend to be poorer, older, and lacking in affordable and reliable high-speed broadband that residents need to access news on their smartphones, laptops or desktops.
Since 2005, when newspaper revenues topped $50 billion, both revenue and newsroom employment have fallen by about 60% across the United States. Newspaper chains own more than two-thirds of the nation’s daily newspapers; many are owned by or indebted to hedge funds, private equity groups or other investment firms that have often slashed jobs, sold off newspaper plants and office buildings, and squeezed the remaining, diminished properties.
The NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers of America, has organized labor unions for journalists at the Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; the unions are bargaining over their first contracts.
Daily and weekly newspapers are starting to become more alike, the report found. During the pandemic, many daily newspapers cut back days of publication to six or fewer each week and increased reliance on e-editions, which mimic the appearance of traditional newspaper pages. Meanwhile, many weekly newspapers, especially those in fast-growing and prosperous suburbs, have started producing daily email newsletters for their subscribers and updating their websites more frequently. Still, the bulk of their revenue comes from local business advertising.
The report tells a story of inequality that is familiar in America. Affluent, larger, growing communities are more likely to enjoy support for both for-profit and nonprofit print and digital news outlets; they have a base of advertisers, subscribers and donors who can afford to pay. Poorer, smaller communities, “where residents live from paycheck to paycheck, are less attractive to advertisers and have, for the most part, been overlooked by potential philanthropic funders and digital entrepreneurs,” the report found.
However, even big-city papers have not been immune to declining circulations. The British trade publication Press Gazette, citing data from the Alliance for Audited Media, found that newspaper readership fell substantially over the past year, as the cost of labor and materials rose and as consumers continued their relentless move to digital platforms. The Dallas Morning News has a weekly print circulation of 65,369 and the Houston Chronicle, 65,084 — a fall of 10% and 17%, respectively, over the past year.
There are a growing number of policy proposals to address the erosion of local news across the United States. Congress has been considering a proposal to give local news employers a payroll tax credit for journalists they employ. Other proposals that have been floated 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 created a local news fund that distributes grants for local journalism projects; Illinois, Massachusetts and New York are studying whether to engage in similar efforts.
Micheal Hodges, executive director of the Texas Press Association, which represents nearly 400 newspapers across Texas, many of them family-owned weeklies, said the organization’s membership had declined from a height of about 600.
“It’s a fact that a lot have closed, because the business model has changed,” he said, adding that he considered “the destruction of downtown rural America” to be the real problem.
“The big issue is that we have a population problem in rural counties of Texas,” he said. “If there are no stores, there’s no advertising. Back in the 19th century, newspapers were historically the first business to open when a new town was settled — a church, a newspaper, a bank. And at the end it’s the reverse.”
Hodges said the statistic of 27 Texas counties that lack a newspaper might seem more dramatic than it is. “In Loving County, Texas, there are no newspapers, and I would dare say there’s no grocery stores either. It’s not a news desert, it’s a people desert.” (The county is the nation’s least populous; the 2020 Census estimated it has 64 people.)
A number of small Texas papers still make money, but their aging publishers cannot find younger 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 publishers.
Hodges pointed to two local newspapers — the Vega Enterprise in the Panhandle and the Naples Monitor in Northeast Texas — as examples of newspapers rebounding.
“They’re being revived by older publishers who had had to close them down for health reasons, but in both cases the community wrapped their arms around these papers,” Hodges said. “Readers included subscription renewals with their get-well cards.”
Not all publications are so lucky. O.D. and Carolyn W. Anderson run the Rocksprings Record and Texas Mohair Weekly, which dates to 1893, in a remote part of Southwest Texas. The weekly newspaper has two part-time employees, along with the couple. The town of Rocksprings has about 1,200 residents, and the paper is the only one in Edwards County, population 2,000.
“My husband and I are 78 and 84, we have some health issues,” Carolyn Anderson said in a phone interview. “We have two daughters, but they have their very separate lives. Both of them have worked in the newspaper, but they don’t want to take it over. This Thursday, June 30, is our last issue, unless we have a new owner step forward. We have a little bit of interest, but not enough right now.”
Disclosure: Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of 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 Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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