By JENNIFER NEHRER
In the span of just nine months in late 2019 and early 2020, the Washington, D.C. area lost two local newspapers, The Washington Post Express and The Current. A combined readership of 300,000 daily and weekly readers lost their connection to their local news in print and online. D.C. is just one of many such cases nationwide of a community losing its local newspapers. In an age dominated by electronic media, the loss of local news media poses serious concerns for the readers that turn to these papers for news and information about their community.
As a resident of D.C., I have relied on local papers for years. Seeing the Express and later The Current go out of business has felt like a stab in the back. The Current provided an invaluable point of access to information for me and my neighbors to the goings-on in our community. Without them, especially during a pandemic that is keeping us isolated, I feel disconnected from the very area that I live in.
Both the Express and The Current ceased online publication as well as print when they closed. The Washington Post Express, a free daily newspaper distributed by The Washington Post, printed its final issue on September 12, 2019, after 16 years. Their last headline blamed the digital age for its untimely closure, reading, “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones.” The Current, a local weekly newspaper that served the residents of Northwest D.C. for 52 years, was forced to abruptly cease publishing after their May 8, 2020, issue. The roughly 100,000 recipients of its weekly publication were left without a newspaper that covers events specific to their neighborhood, including school news, a police blotter, local events, and more.
D.C. residents are lucky, however, and have other sources of local news, though not as hyperlocal as the Express and The Current. Other towns are not as fortunate. According to a report by Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, in the United States, “[m]ore than one in five papers has closed over the past decade and a half [as of 2018].” And as a result, she says, “Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly [publication]… [and] [a]lmost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all.”
Though social media provides some local news, it is not enough. Even online, information about local news is scarce unless you search hard for it; but not everyone has that kind of time. That’s what local papers provide that other platforms cannot: they give us a way to quickly read about upcoming events and important updates without having to disrupt our schedules to do so.
In a year of both a major election cycle and a worldwide pandemic, access to accurate news and information is incredibly important. The people must be informed of decisions by local governments and local businesses, both of which greatly affect their daily lives. People who are unemployed need to have access to job listings for their area that traditionally show up in the local newspaper.
In her study, Abernathy recommends that local television stations and online news outlets should be the ones to step up and fill the void left behind by the newspapers; but she also notes that underfunded communities may not have as much access to these sources as affluent communities.
Even the smallest stories can make an impact on our daily lives, so it is crucial that local news, both in print and online, remains accessible to readers in every community nationwide so that we can stay up to date on current events and be prepared for what lies ahead.