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Report: Local news outlets continue to decline in United States and Kentucky

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The number of local news outlets is continuing to decline nationwide and in Kentucky, even as some philanthropists have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to support local news.

The State of Local News report, an annual publication from Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative, found that the United States will have lost one-third of its newspapers since 2005 by the end of next year.

Researchers found that the growth of alternative news sources — such as ethnic and minority news outlets, public media and digital publications — have not kept up with the pace of what is being lost.

Over 200 counties nationwide do not have a news outlet. Four Kentucky counties — Todd, Robertson, Powell and Menifee — are among those counties.

Over 1,500 counties across the U.S. — and 90 in Kentucky — only have one news outlet. According to the report, most of those counties are suburban or rural areas.

Benjy Hamm is the director of the University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. He said the acceleration of newspaper closings is deeply concerning, especially for rural areas.

“Most counties in Kentucky are small, and they have historically been served by only one news outlet, which is the local newspaper. If that newspaper goes under, or cuts back on staffing, there aren't any other options, generally, for local news,” Hamm said. “Most counties in Kentucky still have news, at least one news outlet. It's whether that news outlet is producing strong news content, and that's a concern, even without newspapers going out of business.”

Hamm attributed part of the decline in newspapers to a shift in the traditional news business model that supported outlets in previous decades. Advertisers spent around $9.8 billion in newspapers in 2022, down from a peak of $49.3 billion in 2005. Hamm said this decrease limits the industry’s revenue, and impacts the ability of some outlets to sufficiently staff their newsrooms.

To Hamm, the decrease in ad support doesn’t indicate a lack of interest in news consumers.

“There's still a lot of people who want and need local news, but there's not the ability to pay for it in the same way that it used to be,” he said. “Historically, advertising at a newspaper paid 80% of the bills and profits. And that's fundamentally changed.”

Northwestern’s report found that the number of newspaper journalists in Kentucky declined by 65% between 2005 and 2022. With fewer journalists working at fewer outlets, Hamm is concerned about the potential impact to communities.

“A lot of those outlets have reduced staff, cut back on frequency of publication [and] they have more limited coverage than they've had before. That's not good for communities,” he said. “Research has shown that communities with news deserts – or reduced news coverage – suffer in a lot of different ways, including lower voter participation, less accountability from government and more corruption.”

Hannah Saad is the Assistant News Director for WKMS. Originally from Michigan, Hannah earned her bachelor’s degree in news media from The University of Alabama in 2021. Hannah moved to western Kentucky in the summer of 2021 to start the next chapter of her life after graduation. Prior to joining WKMS in March 2023, Hannah was a news reporter at The Paducah Sun. Her goal at WKMS is to share the stories of the region from those who call it home. Outside of work, Hannah enjoys exploring local restaurants, sports photography, painting, and spending time with her fiancé and two dogs.