The Decline of Small Newspapers Means Higher Risk of Local Corruption in the U.S.

There is widespread consensus that a free, objective press plays an important role in fighting corruption and holding public officials accountable (see here, here, and here). That’s why, when countries with high levels of public corruption seek to silence investigative journalists or shutter unbiased news outlets, anticorruption organizations like Transparency International are vocal in their opposition. It’s a bit surprising, then, that so little has been said about how the decline of small newspapers in the United States has increased the risk of local corruption.

The decline of small newspapers in the United States has been precipitous. Between 2004 and 2018, there was a net loss of nearly 1,800 papers, over 1,000 of which had circulations under 5,000. Today, around half of all counties in the United States only have one local newspaper, often circulating only on a weekly basis, while nearly 200 counties don’t have a single newspaper—resulting in “news deserts,” defined as communities “with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots levels.” Furthermore, in many of the small- and medium-circulation outlets that remain, newsrooms have been gutted, often due to layoffs imposed by their parent companies. For example, Digital First Media, a publisher that owns more than 50 newspapers, has eliminated two-thirds of all newspaper staff since 2011.  Between 2001 and 2016, employment in the U.S. newspaper industry decreased by more than 50%.

The decline of small newspapers is just one component of a shifting media landscape in the United States. Some of the other trends, like the rise of social media and the proliferation of unverified and sometimes apocryphal online new sources, have been at the center of political discourse. The decline of small newspapers, on the other hand, is often lamented as a regrettable casualty of changing times, but there isn’t enough appreciation of the fact that the decline of small newspapers poses a risk of increased local corruption. Continue reading