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The problem of news deserts, and how technology can offer solutions

The closure of local newspapers is creating news deserts. PressReader’s Ruairí Doyle says that tech is the solution.

By Ruairí Doyle

The problem of news deserts, and how technology can offer solutions
Ruairí Doyle.

Last year, PressReader surveyed hundreds of professionals working in English-language media and publishing around the world. We were hoping to get a general sense of how they perceived the current state and future direction of their industry, but we were particularly interested in their views on the topic of news deserts. Moreover, we were hoping to identify potential solutions and ultimately to understand what technology providers, including PressReader, can do to help shape those solutions.

We learned that 86% of respondents agreed that local news access is vital to democracy, and that more than 45% believe access to local news has actually decreased in the past decade. Local news is indeed vital, as it plays a crucial role in keeping community members informed about their local government, elections and other social events.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that so many papers have shut down in the past couple of decades that more than a fifth of US citizens now live in news deserts – communities lacking in media outlets that cover local news. When local journalism erodes, it creates a vacuum that peddlers of disinformation and conspiracy theories are all too happy to fill.

That said, there is still plenty of reason to have hope. Just over half of the respondents to our survey said they were confident or optimistic that emerging technologies could help sustain or even increase access to local news.

Digital distribution and new monetisation opportunities

We witnessed a real-life example of this first-hand. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (ADG) has ceased its print edition and, using PressReader’s Branded Editions technology, only delivers content to its subscribers via a paid web- and app-based interactive digital replica for the iPad. ADG’s bold iPad strategy had massive success, putting the newspaper on the road to profitability in under two years, successfully converting 79% of its print subscribers over to its digital replica in 2019 and increasing subscription pricing from $7.99 to $34 per month.

Digital distribution opens the door to new monetisation opportunities, and it can enable local publishers to broaden their reach into new markets without incurring additional printing and distribution costs. Technology can provide publishers with the means to get important information out to their local communities, and it can empower readers by allowing them to access the news which matters to them, even if the printing presses have stopped running.

As Professor Penny Abernathy noted in a 2022 report from Northwestern University, “Reviving local news is not about reviving print newspapers. Rather it is about reviving the historic function of strong local journalism.” A given community’s local newspaper may never return in its previous form, but that doesn’t mean a news desert will be the inevitable result.

And that’s good news for all of us.

About us

PressReader is on a mission to empower and enrich curious minds by bringing a universe of quality content within reach. The company is a group of companies (including PressReader, Branded Editions and TextBookHub brands) building technology solutions for content delivery and consumption, publisher empowerment, content intelligence and brand engagement. PressReader works with the publishers of over 14,000 newspapers, magazines and educational publications and collaborates with global business partners from 150 countries to connect people from every corner of the world with quality content.


This article was first published in the Publishing Partners Guide (PPG) 2023, which is published and distributed by InPublishing. You can register to receive InPublishing magazine here.