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For rural states like ND, local news access no longer a guarantee

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Wednesday, December 6, 2023   

There are some bright spots in beefing up local news coverage, but a new report says in North Dakota and elsewhere, there are still big concerns about people not having enough access to key information about their communities.

In the 2023 State of Local News summary, issued through Northwestern University, the authors said local news outlets continue to close at alarming rates. Residents in more than half of U.S. counties have no, or very limited, reliable local news sources, including print, digital and broadcast.

Penelope Muse Abernathy, visiting professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said it appears the U.S. is becoming a nation of "haves" and "have-nots" when it comes to local news.

"Most of the people who have a wealth of access to local journalism tend to live in our larger metro areas," Abernathy pointed out. "The journalism 'have-nots,' they tend to be more in the rural areas."

The report shows North Dakota has two counties without a local news source, and 28 counties with only one.

Philanthropic ventures are surfacing to close some of these gaps around the country. And regionally, nonprofit efforts like the North Dakota Monitor are launching to ensure adequate coverage of government matters. But the experts said long-term fundraising can be a challenge for these ventures, especially at the local level.

The latest report also ties in so-called "news deserts" with poverty rates. In those areas, 17% of residents live in poverty, a rate higher than the national average. Abernathy explained the lack of information can block underserved populations from learning about beneficial programs and services.

"This is a real issue about how you get information to people who desperately need the information that newspapers have historically provided," Abernathy stressed. "That help them craft decisions to work toward a better quality of life."

Beyond philanthropic support to prop up local news outlets, the report noted there is a bill in Congress to incentivize hiring correspondents, and for small businesses to advertise with those news organizations. The authors acknowledged the proposal likely will not advance in the current political environment, but could serve as a roadmap for state-level solutions.


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