In the United States, the disappearance of local newspapers weighs on the functioning of democracy

Lhe extinction of the local press is accelerating in the United States. By 2022, local newspapers had closed at a rate of two each week, according to the journalism school at Northwestern University (Illinois). In 2023, the average stood at 2.5 weekly closures, indicates the annual report published in November by the university. More than 130 newspapers have closed or been absorbed, a phenomenon that many experts seem linked to the current dramas of American democracy: disinformation, corruption, polarization.

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In less than twenty years, a quarter of American newspapers have folded. More than 200 of the country’s 3,143 counties are now planned as “the deserts of the news” (“information deserts”): they no longer have any local newspapers. In more than 1,500 others, there is only one regional news source, usually a weekly. One in five Americans lives in one of these under-information zones.

“The loss of these newspapers sends local populations into a spiral of disinformation, division and polarization, laments Steve Waldman, the founder of Rebuild Local News, a coalition of some 3,000 news outlets and associations that is not but is restoring local media. On the national level, on a tendency to consider opponents as enemies. On a local level, when you meet them at a match or at the supermarket, you realize that they are human beings too. »

More than a thousand press outlets are now brought together like “ghost journals” : they have lost more than half of their employees and are produced by a reduced number of journalists, sometimes stationed far from the ground they are supposed to cover. The report cites the example of the error committed on September 5, 2023 by the Hutchinson News, a Kansas newspaper, former Pulitzer Prize winner, purchased in 2016 by the Gannett Group. On the front page, the newspaper described – supporting photo – a group of “dynamic and happy” residents of a city retirement home kayaking on a tree-lined lake. The readers were amazed: they had never seen such a lake near their home. The article actually mentioned the activities proposed in a locality of the same name, but located in Minnesota. The paper was produced by a freelancer not living in Hutchinson, and commissioned by a publisher based in Oklahoma…

Corruption and waste

Due to the decline in advertising and competition from the Internet, the United States has lost more than 2,500 newspapers since 2005 and 43,000 journalists, or nearly two levels of editorial staff. Northwestern University estimates that a third of local newspapers will likely be shuttered by the end of 2024. The roughly 6,000 surviving papers are mostly weeklies, owned by investment firms seeking to cut costs.

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