The Waning Days of “The News”

May 20, 2024


  • Local and regional news media are steadily dying off
  • Two-thirds of North Carolina counties now qualify as “news deserts”
  • Innovative news alternatives are emerging, for better or worse


Over the last two decades, the news media industry has been dying. Nearly 70% of jobs at U.S. newspapers have disappeared since 2006. At the same time, circulation of daily papers has collapsed from a peak of over 60 million copies in the 1990s to under 21 million today. Nationally, thousands of local papers have closed entirely, and those that remain are increasingly owned by a handful of large conglomerates. A 2019 merger between mega-publishers Gannett and Gatehouse created a firm that owns fully 20% of the daily papers in the US. Here in North Carolina, there’s been a 22% decrease in active local newspapers between 2004-2019 and a 38% reduction in total circulation. There are now 6 counties in NC without a local paper and 58 more that have only one. Two-thirds of North Carolina counties now meet the definition of a “news desert.”

The reasons for the broad extinction of local and regional media are complicated and frequently debated, but the clearest immediate cause is the collapse of the advertising revenue that once sustained the business model. The internet and social media, particularly Google and Facebook, which have soaked up much of that advertising revenue, leaving news media firms with significantly fewer resources. High-quality, reliable journalism is hard work, requiring knowledgable and dedicated staff, and without the resources to pay that staff, quality suffers. This has been described as a “doom loop” for newsrooms: dropping revenues lead to newsroom cuts, which lead to a watered-down product, which makes it less attractive to readers and advertisers.

North Carolina has seen the results of this doom loop in real time.

“Ghost papers”

With more newspapers owned by a smaller group of conglomerates all trying to aggressively cut costs, many of the journalists who remain are expected to cover larger geographical territories and more topics, as well as acting as editors, publishers, marketers and more. To continue to fill pages, an increasingly common practice is to copy-paste articles from paper to paper. These “ghost newspapers” haven’t closed their doors, but they’re no longer serving their specific community – they’re simply a syndication channel.

Take, for example, The Enquirer Journal. It is the only newspaper in Union County, in publication since 1873. They’re owned by Kentucky-based Paxton Media Group, a relatively small conglomerate that owns 30 daily papers, including 14 in North Carolina. Those include the Lexington Dispatch, the Asheboro Courier-Tribune, the Burlington Times-News, the Kinston Free Press, the New Bern Sun Journal, and the Daily News of Jacksonville. Most of these outlets operate with just a few, or sometimes only a single, staff member.

Without the close local oversight that journalists once provided, politicians and corporations can act with impunity. A growing body of research shows that communities without a daily local paper suffer a variety of negative impacts, ranging from increased local corruption to a burgeoning susceptibility to deliberate political misinformation. It also means that the public’s news consumption is increasingly national. Rather than learning about the actions local leaders are taking that impacts the schools, drinking water, housing costs or transportation, the public has increasingly gravitated towards symbolic culture war conflicts that are driven by national media. One 2018 academic paper even found that the closing of a local paper decreased ticket splitting in the local community by 2 percentage points – a significant drop.

The future of regional media

While traditional news media structures have withered, a few alternatives have begun to emerge.

One is highly ideological, opinion-journalism funded by private, partisan donors. The Carolina Journal, the in-house newsletter published by the Art Pope-John Locke Foundation, is the most prominent example. As a Republican activist organization, the Carolina Journal has no need to meet revenue goals, and has the freedom to focus on promoting GOP partisan messaging to a niche audience. NC Newsline (formerly NC Policy Watch) and Cardinal & Pine are similar examples on the left, though meaningfully different. Each has a heavier focus on journalism, albeit from a progressive point of view, instead of a flatly partisan tone.

Emerging outlets like The Assembly are another alternative. The Assembly is a state-wide digital news magazine that  has broken significant stories of statewide interest, and supports itself mainly on a subscription model. The Assembly was very conspicuously the only major news outlet in the state to cover Republican State House Speaker-to-be Destin Hall’s embarrassing (and almost deadly) car accident in Virginia, which evidently involved alcohol. Traditional media outlets like WRAL, The News & Observer, WUNC and others completely ignored the story, likely out of concern for their continued access to Republican leadership – not a complimentary look for outlets already grappling with reader distrust.

In the Triangle region, the Chapel Hill-based Triangle Blog Blog has shown yet another path. The “Blog Blog” is run by a group of volunteers, covering hyper-local issues: the fight over the Town of Carrborro’s planned greenway expansion alignment and Chapel Hill’s zoning code changes, for example. The Blog Blog has done critical, local investigative journalism, as well as organizing fun events like a march madness style bracket of cool things around town called “March Radness” (won by Pie-Pan the cat). While the Blog Blog lacks scale (it covers only Chapel Hill), it is highly relevant: it is arguably the most important source of local news in the area.

These and other experiments in news media are still ongoing. The question, as always, remains: to what extent does the public wish to know what’s happening in the community around them? How widely do they define their community? And what organizational structure or format can best provide and distribute that information at scale? No one knows the answers to these questions. But the days of traditional news media brokers seems to be coming definitively to the end – and it’s up to audiences themselves to determine whether they want news, or entertainment.

Help build progress for North Carolina.
Get in touch
PO Box 452, Carrboro, NC 27510

    Stay updated with us

    Stay Updated

    Receive the latest news from Carolina Forward