If the acquittal of Donald Trump proves anything, it shows that Trumpism is more than welcome in our government and our people. Many factors have fueled the spread of the violent ideology, from systemic racism to less-diagnosed news deserts. The state of small print media has been in rapid decline since the mid-2000’s, leaving many, predominantly rural communities without a local source of information. It is this lack of local news that leads individuals towards sources of news that perpetuate misinformation and spread conspiracy theories, culminating in the election of Trump. However, it’s not just as simple as news deserts being the root of a lot of problems, mostly because the definition of news deserts are not widely agreed upon.
Some define news deserts as communities without newspapers at all, while others suggest that news deserts are places with difficult access to news; there are also ghost newspapers, which are newspapers that are failing their communities in terms of their production and distribution of relevant news. The minutiae of the problem tends to cloud the actual issue: community news is dying out in favor of larger, less localized information. For the purpose of this article, a news desert will be described as a location with the lack of access to community newspapers, because the issue with news deserts is not necessarily that the people there do not want news, but that they cannot access certain forms. It is a poison that begins in our communities and works its way to the national level through the sources of media that are available (Fox, I am looking at you).
News deserts became a popularized term in the early 2000’s when local press began swiftly disappearing. Between 2004 and 2018, 1,800 papers closed, but the majority of these papers were in metropolitan areas with a circulation of less than 10,000, illustrating how the death of these papers erased localized information. About 30 percent of these papers were in rural areas with a circulation of less than 4,000, and the closure of newspapers in these communities — which have poverty rates about three percent higher than the national average, and approximately half of which lack reliable access to internet/streaming news — means that they are left without any authenticated source of community or even national news.
However, living in an area with a ghost newspaper is not much better for sustaining the spread of relevant information, acting as a community watchdog, or just functional community journalism in general. Local papers can become ghosts in two ways: they can be bought out by a national media corporation, or struggling finances require newsrooms to significantly cut back on staff, lowering the quality of, and resources behind, local stories. The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism’s “The Expanding News Desert” reports, “The top 25 companies that own the most newspapers control the fate of nearly one-third of all papers, up from 20 percent in 2004. This included two-thirds of all dailies — 812 — and almost a fourth of all weeklies — 1,376. The largest company, New Media/GateHouse, owns 451 newspapers in 34 states.” Monopolies usually go over really well, especially in information.
While these may seem like small numbers of newspapers that have closed or become ghosts, the reality is that one quarter of all newspapers in the U.S. have died, with 300 more closing since 2018. This creates an information deficit that disproportionately impacts certain communities. As of 2018, 91 counties in the American South did not have a newspaper, and every state in the South had at least one news desert. Where do people turn to without access to local media? Well, that is an easy answer: Facebook.
News deserts are a problem in and of themselves, but they have become a comorbidity of a larger issue plaguing this country and the world: misinformation. In 2018, 20 percent of individuals said they used social media as a source of news often, compared to just 16 percent for print news and, while 49 percent answered television; the amount of people who use television often as a source of news has decreased eight percent since 2016. The number of people getting news from social media is rising rapidly, with 28 percent of people using social media as a news source often, and 26 percent using it sometimes as of 2019.
This same Pew Research Center study found that Facebook and YouTube were the most popular social media platforms used to find news. Of the 71 percent of people who reported using Facebook, 52 percent reported using it for news, and, of the 74 percent who used YouTube, 28 percent said they used it for news. Perhaps this would not be an issue if misinformation was not incredibly prevalent on Facebook (and other social media platforms). The New York Times reported that “Facebook likes, comments, and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content roughly tripled from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2020” on Facebook. Facebook is a prime example of why news being accessible is not always a good thing without the media literacy to help us navigate it.
While Trump’s campaign and subsequent election caused a bump in subscription rates — with the percentage of people with multiple news subscriptions in the U.S. reaching 20 percent in recent years — this really only accounts for nationally syndicated “liberal” newspapers and not local sources. Still, we are all incredibly vulnerable to misinformation; approximately 86 percent of Americans have fallen for “fake news” at least once, and about half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory. Yes, we will always have the chance of falling for untrustworthy news without being able to physically verify news ourselves, but local news has the potential to build a network of reliable sources from the community level up.
The use of local newspapers as election sources is low for people who voted for either party in 2016, hovering around four percent for Hilary Clinton voters and around three percent for Trump voters. However, the issue with this is that most people probably do not have access to local newspapers that have thriving campaign and candidate coverage thanks to news deserts and ghost newspapers. That said, Trump voters overwhelmingly used Fox News as a campaign source in 2016, with 40 percent saying it was their primary source. Only eight percent said CNN was their main source, the next highest percentage for Trump voters. Clinton voters had no predominant main source (although CNN was the most popular). If Fox is still credible in your books, which should definitely be reconsidered, 11 percent of Trump voters regularly got their news from Brietbart. Without local news to show how national campaigns impact smaller communities, sensationalistic news fills that gap, leading to Trump. Furthermore, the more any voter turns to one source over many, there will be a decay in the way information spreads across all media platforms.
Maybe you consider local information to be more accessible with the spread of the Internet, like most people in urban and suburban areas, but people in rural areas are the least likely to believe that news is more accessible, with only 46 percent saying ease has increased over the last five years. Yet, this survey was conducted in 2011 and over the phone. There is a chance that these numbers may look significantly different now, but the question is what kind/quality of information is easier to access. With the death or decreased performance of local newspapers, local news, especially local campaign news, becomes harder to find. A Pew Research Center survey found that more people are interested in local news than are able to find information on it easily, with sports (and, like, how local is that in some cases) and weather being the easiest. Just because information is easier to find does not mean it is the quality or relevancy we need to sustain our communities.
I live in a small town in California of less than 2,000 people. Our local newspaper’s most active column is written by a woman who lives in Idaho, with about one article per issue dedicated to news that could greatly impact the community. In this town, Trump flags outnumber American flags (it gets a little hazy if they’re Trump American flags) a month after the Capitol coup. Some of the fun slogans are “election fraud,” “impeach Biden,” or, my personal favorite, “the media is socialism.” When mayoral campaign signs popped up around the 2020 election in my unincorporated (aka without mayors) town, none of the people I talked to knew what it was about, and, obviously, nothing was on the ballot. Since this was a seemingly fake election, maybe it does not matter, but where else is candidate information available without local news? Their website (if they have one), voter information websites (if they, or anyone else, bothered to add it), or in their community (if they are active)?
Although Trump is out of office now, the lack of local news is arguably what allows candidates like Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene to enter our House of Representatives. The Rome News Tribune, the newspaper from the seat of Taylor Greene’s district, has merged with multiple other local newspapers and, in total, they only published five articles that mention her in regards to her campaign and none since her election. A healthy source of local information is the first line of battle for garnering support for progressivism. Without local news, who will tell rural communities that universal health care would save their lives, or that climate change impacts them, too? Local news is just the first domino in a long line of the fragile components of our society. As goes the press, so goes our democracy.
Featured Image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus