One year shy of celebrating its centennial, The Caroline Progress closed down. The rural Virginia weekly newspaper had long been a center of community life, but by 2018 it had ceased to be profitable. Residents expressed sadness over the loss and reported a diminished sense of pride in their local community. One resident said of the newspaper closure, “’I think there is a loss of the quality of life, with people not being as close because you lost the paper.” Indeed, when the local paper goes away, so does coverage of the things that are common and unique to a given community, like local schools and sports teams, city government, the county commission, and the behavior of local legislators. Communities, in other words, are deprived of coverage of the kinds of things that most people care about but have no realistic way of learning about short of obsessively attending public meetings all the time. These are also the kind of communal concerns that can draw people out of their private lives and instill the traits of public-spirited citizenship. What tends to replace professional local journalism are ill-informed, highly charged, emotional posts — too often from cranks — on the local Facebook page. There is some evidence that the demise of The Caroline Progress had electoral implications, as well. For the first time in years, candidates for county sheriff and mayor of the largest town in the county ran unopposed.
The story of The Caroline Progress has become a familiar one. Shifts in the media landscape in recent decades have left an increasing number of Americans living in “news deserts,” or counties without a local paper. Since 2004, approximately 2,100 newspapers — nearly one in four — have gone out of print, leaving well over 1,300 communities without local news outlets. Hundreds more have reduced their coverage to the point that they’ve become what researchers characterize as “ghost newspapers” – papers that cling to life but are too financially hobbled to serve any worthwhile democratic function. Nearly all of the others have scaled back as well, just not as far. This trend has certainly been consequential for these local communities, but the decline of local news nationwide has also deprived American democracy of one of its key support structures, and it has fueled the nationalization and, by extension, polarization, of our politics. Finding a way to revitalize local media could be a big part of the solution to revitalizing our politics.
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