The Rocky Mountain News. The South Idaho Press. The Lone Peak New Utah.
These long-gone newspapers range from a Pulitzer-winning metro-area daily to small weeklies in rural towns. All are victims of an ongoing trend that’s pummeling the local American newspaper.
According to a new report from the University of North Carolina, since 2004 at least 1,800 papers across the country have closed up shop. Meanwhile, the lack of regular coverage has transformed more communities into “news deserts,” where poverty rates often sit above the national average, corruption is high and voter turnout is low.
The Mountain West has lost nearly 70 papers alone, the report found. In this region, only Wyoming had a paper in each of its 23 counties.
Colorado and Idaho had seven counties without a local paper. Utah had six. Montana, three.
The Expanding News Desert report was released earlier this month. A team of faculty and students within UNC’s School of Media and Journalism researched the scale of newspaper loss and new efforts to help fill the void of coverage in news deserts.
The report’s author, Penny Abernathy, said when local newspapers close, trust in democracy and sense of community suffer at “all levels.”
“If you think back to the history of this country, the first thing that founders of communities west of the Mississippi River did when they arrived was establish a newspaper,” she said. “When we lose a newspaper, our social cohesion deteriorates.”
The UNC team found that of the remaining 7,112 papers in the country, roughly half were in rural communities. Most had a circulation of less than 15,000.
As more people get their news through Facebook and other online sources, larger daily metro and regional papers have pulled back print circulation to outlying rural and suburban areas, the report said. Total weekday circulation has declined from 112 million to 73 million.
The report listed local and region television newsrooms, public access cable channels and digital news sites as outlets that can “fill the void” in local news when newspapers closed.
Abernathy said, despite the closures, she remains optimistic about the future of local coverage.
“It really does depend on who the owner of the newspaper is,” she said. “Is the newspaper owner willing to invest in the human capital that has been so critical to building communities? Are they willing to take the long-range view?”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.