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News deserts and the PR industry: can emerging technologies help reverse the worrying trend?
News deserts and the PR industry: can emerging technologies help reverse the worrying trend?

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News deserts and the PR industry: can emerging technologies help reverse the worrying trend?

By: Johannes Burk,

In a recent survey of news and publishing professionals, over 86% of respondents agreed that local news access is vital to democracy. However, more than 45% said they believe that access to local news has actually decreased in the past decade.

Over the past several months, PressReader surveyed hundreds of people working in English-language news and publishing around the globe in order to get a sense of their views on the current state and future direction of the industry – with a particular focus on the problem of news deserts.

What we learned is that most respondents recognized news deserts as a growing issue but had varying opinions on its causes. Our survey respondents were predominantly optimistic about the future, in particular the role that technology might play in reducing the spread of news deserts.

What is a news desert?

Put in the most basic of terms, a news desert is a community lacking in media outlets that cover local news. For a more expansive definition, we turn to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media: “We define a news desert as: a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

According the Hussman School’s most recent (2020) report on the state of the local news landscape in the US, in the 15 years leading up to 2020, more than one-fourth of that country’s newspapers disappeared. During the same period, half of all local journalists lost their jobs in round after round of layoffs, leaving those papers that managed to survive mere “ghosts” of their former selves.

COVID era brought further losses

The situation has worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication notes that “the country lost more than 360 newspapers between the waning pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022.”

As a result, more than a fifth of US citizens live in news deserts or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts.

Why we need local news

Why is this bad for grassroots democracy, as the CISML asserts? In a recent article, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan summed it up: “As local news disappears, bad things happen: voter participation declines. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And” – as more people turn to social media to fill the void left by the dearth of local news — “false information spreads wildly.”

The above-cited report from Medill School of Journalism makes an eloquent case for keeping local media outlets alive: “Strong local news helps us understand those whose experiences and attitudes are different from us, and, in the process, brings us together to solve our most pressing political, economic and social problems.”

Running the numbers

A few key findings from PressReader’s survey:

•Over 60% of respondents said they believed that news deserts had become a problem with more than a quarter saying that news deserts were becoming an increasingly significant problem.

•15% believed news deserts were not a significant problem.

•Just under half of respondents were somewhat or very pessimistic about the industry’s ability to reverse the problem, but over 32% were somewhat or very confident that the industry would be able to address the issue of news deserts and reverse this threat to democracy.

•Nearly 70% of respondents cited media consolidation as having had at least a somewhat negative or deadening effect on news access; a slightly larger percentage said private equity and hedge fund investment had a similar impact.

•64.6% thought Big Tech had had a negative impact on news access, while 23.1% felt that it had a positive impact.

•52.1% assessed social media to have had a negative impact, while 38.8% believed the rise of social media had had a positive impact on news access.

Hope for the future

We also asked our survey respondents a series of questions about the future of the industry. We wanted to know what role they thought technology might play in reversing trends that have negatively impacted access to news and contributed to the growth of news deserts. Here’s what they told us:

•48.2% believed that technology might have the capacity to help increase profits in the news and publishing industry overall, as opposed to 27.3% who were pessimistic about the notion.

•Slightly fewer, 44.4%, were confident or optimistic that technology could facilitate greater or more sustainable profits for smaller and local publishers as well as independent journalists.

•Likewise, 42.5% were at least somewhat confident or optimistic these technologies could help local publishers and independent journalists remain independent. There was slightly more negativity on this measure, with 35% pessimistic about the proposition.

However, the one question to which a majority of respondents answered optimistically was arguably the question most relevant to reversing the trend of news deserts. Just over half of respondents were confident or optimistic that emerging technologies could help sustain or even increase access to local news.

The PR perspective

As news deserts spread and the field of professional journalism continues to shrink, the PR industry is actually growing — but how long will that growth be sustainable? In a post on PR Daily, Mark Weiner, a Trustee of the Institute for Public Relations, cited a report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that projected a further widening of the gulf between public relations and journalism. “The reported trends indicate that while PR people already outnumber journalists by a rate of roughly 6-to-1, the pay and growth trends indicate that the gap will continue to widen,” Weiner noted. “So, at some point, to whom will media relations people pitch their stories? What becomes of the press release?”

In that same post, Tina McCorkindale, CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, said “It certainly makes me wonder how closely the future of the public relations business relates to the future of the media business. To some degree, this pessimistic view of media relations may be the reason why more and more communicators refer to what we do as ‘content creation’ and ‘storytelling.’ It reflects a deemphasis on the news media. I do think that public relations can do more, and we have an obligation to do so.”

Describing the deterioration of local journalism as “a real crisis for our country”, McCorkindale suggested a few ways for PR professionals to help:

•Advertise and invest in local newspapers.

•Buy subscriptions to help employees stay well-informed (that also helps repel disinformation).

•Encourage legislation that supports journalists and journalism.

•Be a good public relations steward in your relationships with the media — make their jobs easier.

Reviving journalism’s historic function

In Northwestern/Medill’s State of Local News report, visiting teacher and researcher Penny Abernathy notes that “rethinking the practice of journalism” might help address the critical gaps in the flow of news and information that have emerged over the past decade.

“Technology is providing opportunities to deliver journalism to previously isolated communities in a variety of ways; engage and measure the behaviors of current and new customers; capture sporting and business statistics and then produce basic news stories; scan massive troves of documents; and assemble the data so investigative reporters can see the big picture more clearly,” she writes.

Even if a given community’s local newspaper never comes back in its previous form, technology could ensure that a news desert is not the inevitable result. As Abernathy writes, “Reviving local news is not about reviving print newspapers. Rather it is about reviving the historic function of strong local journalism.”

For further information about the problem of news deserts, and its impact on the the PR industry, or to find out more about how PressReader supports PR companies with digital access to premium global and local print publications, contact PressReader's Sales team or PressReader's Director Content Solutions, Johannes Burk

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