The decline of local newspapers: How journalism is affected


Local newspapers are becoming few and far between. Mike Gallagher worked at Ellensburg’s local newspaper, The Daily Record, for 25 years as a reporter and managing editor. He said journalism is different now than it was when he first started.

“When newspapers first started, they made a lot of money- most newspapers came to 30% profit margins,” Gallagher said. “When I first worked at the Daily Record, there was no issue about how big the paper would be every day, it would be as big as we want[ed] it.”

According to the Pew Research Center, the print newspaper industry has experienced a dramatic decline over the past two decades. Since 2004, weekday newspaper circulation in the United States has plummeted by 57%. Furthermore, between 2008 and 2019, the number of newsroom employees in the newspaper industry dropped by 51%. 

One significant factor contributing to the decline of local newspapers is the changing landscape of advertising. As more advertising dollars flow toward online platforms, local newspapers have struggled to adapt. 

Pew Research Center data revealed that print advertising revenue for newspapers fell from $46.2 billion in 2003 to $14.3 billion in 2018. The Week also stated a similar stat showing the newspaper revenue plummeting from $49 billion in 2006 to $14 billion in 2018.  This substantial decline has severely impacted the financial viability of local newspapers, forcing many to reduce staff, cut coverage or cease publication altogether.

“This is a whole different world,” Gallagher said. “As the years went on, the industry became less profitable. The crash in 2008 really hit newspapers hard. That was kind of the tipping point for most, especially smaller-town, newspapers.”

News deserts are expanses of space in the United States that do not have any local newspapers.

“There [are] so many large gaps between places that have newspapers…they’re called news deserts,” Gallagher said. “Initially, there was some sort of connectivity, you know, every little town and their paper or some sort of network, and that is frayed and fractured. You saw the New York Times making boatloads of money, but nobody else [was].”

According to US News Deserts, more than one in five papers has closed over the past decade and a half, leaving thousands of our communities at risk of becoming news deserts. Additionally, according to US News Deserts, half of the 3,143 counties in the country now only have one newspaper, usually a small weekly. 

The impact of less funding to the papers was that reports had to be let go.

“So, [there were] fewer people doing more work, which is never really a good recipe in newspapers because it’s stressful enough as it is, so you’re kind of scrambling to cover a lot of stuff,” Gallagher said.

The Daily Record used to be owned by an offshoot of the Scripps family, who were a legacy family in news because they owned a lot of newspapers, according to Gallagher.

Gallagher said the Scripps family was used to making a lot of money and probably hadn’t had a reporter in the family for three or four generations.

“They were just so used to just rolling in the money without having to really do much at all,” Gallagher said. “The industry hasn’t changed much since post World War II…they had no capacity for change for quite a while, and then change crushed them with the internet and how they could deliver their product [so that] people can access their product, because they were still getting a lot of readers, they’re just not making any money off it.”

The Daily Record has not been under local ownership since the 1950s, according to Gallagher. 

“My attitude, ever since I started working in newspapers, is that it was all one big business,” Gallagher said.

Newspapers everywhere were negatively impacted by Covid-19 as well.

“[Covid-19] was a crusher, that’s another factor as far as newspapers, how we are able to staff. It’s hard to hire people.”

Despite his job at The Daily Record being difficult at times, Gallagher said he does not discourage people from pursuing journalism- they just need to know how to get started.

“The best thing about newspapers is there’s one everywhere. I mean, you can just pick a place,” Gallagher said.

Local news is important because when people know what is going on around them, they have a more realistic idea of what’s going on in their community.

According to The Week, local newspapers have played a crucial role in the nation’s public life like binding communities together, promoting civic engagement, telling citizens how their tax dollars are being spent and rooting out malfeasance by public officials. 

“If you create on the community level, you’re more likely to overcome [the] fear people have, the isolation, because they live in this community,” Gallagher said. “It’s harder to be fearful [when] it’s something you encounter every day.”

The best way to carry out journalism work nowadays is to adapt to new ways of communicating.

“I think people have to be creative in how they craft their careers,” Gallagher said. “Be willing and capable of creating your content in different forms, in different formats. It [can’t just] be a print product. You have to know how to create either a video or audio version of the story you’re doing. People can consume their information in different manners now, they’re not sitting at home waiting for the paper to fall on their porch at four o’clock.”

While online news sources have emerged as alternatives, there are concerns surrounding equitable access to information. 

The transition to digital news sources exacerbates existing disparities in access to information. The Pew Research Center identifies a “digital divide” that disproportionately affects lower-income communities and older demographics, limiting their access to digital news platforms.

“This divide further compounds the loss of local newspapers, exacerbating information inequalities and impeding democratic participation for marginalized communities,” according to Pew Research Center.

Gallagher emphasized why it is important for people to continue pursuing journalism.

“If you give up on the concept of journalism and news, then you’re really in trouble, because this leaves the people’s republic open to manipulation.”

The Society of Professional Journalism warns that the decline of local newspapers weakens democracy by diminishing government accountability. Without robust local coverage, public officials are less likely to face scrutiny, potentially leading to corruption and a lack of transparency. Citizens, in turn, may become less informed and engaged in local affairs, eroding democratic participation and the overall health of civic life. 

Sara Fischer, an author of Axios Media Trends commented on what’s at stake of losing local newspapers. 

“At a minimum, the loss of local news only worsens the political, cultural and economic divisions in this country,” Fischer said. 

Also according to Sara Fischer, she describes the state of play if this crisis continues: “Around 7 percent of America’s counties now have no local outlet and around 20 percent are at risk of their communities becoming news deserts in the foreseeable future,” Fischer said.