When Local Newspapers Close, What Can Libraries Do?
By: Rebecca Hill
When the local newspaper closed in Weare, New Hampshire, the community lost its local news source. In stepped Mike Sullivan, library director of the Weare Public Library. After a suggestion from a local, he decided to create a local newspaper. Weare is a small town, only 9000 residents, and though it is the second largest town in the state by area, a lot happens in this New England town. So, Sullivan and the public library assumed the post of newspaper editor and publisher. Now Weare’s newspaper produces copies for town residents every week at the low cost of approximately $25 per paper and does more than highlight events. Last October, Sullivan covered the environmental approval of a major solid waste processing facility that had moved into Weare, forging the path for the paper to be more than just a community calendar.
In the last decade, almost 1,800 out of 9,000 dailies and weekly newspapers in the United States closed. Seventy percent of large dailies in cities like Tampa and Denver also closed, or either merged with other papers. Of the 7,112 remaining papers, roughly half of those are in small and rural communities. As a result, small towns like Weare are rapidly emerging “news deserts” because they no access to local news.
Most of us can remember when local newspapers provided a valuable service to their communities. Many of them featured Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations and reporters, like the Raleigh News and Observer that won a Pulitzer for exposing the long-term consequences of large-scale industrial hog farming on the states rural counties.
Now according to the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism’s 2018 report, communities that once cultivated active investigative news journalism, have become news deserts, or places “either rural or urban with limited aces to the cost of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at a grassroots level” (Abernathy, 2018). Regardless of how you define it, losing local news sources can be devastating to a town or city.
Of course, with the Internet being so ubiquitous, you might think that local newspapers once lost can be found on the Internet. Not true. In most cases when a local news source dies, so does their website. According to Matthew Hindman’s study, Less of the Same, Lack of Local News on the Internet, local news is “only a tiny part of the Web” (Hindman, 2011). Throw in the problem of inadequate or no broadband in rural areas, and people are either left with less or nothing at all. Why exactly is it so important to have local news access?
The biggest value, says Johanna Dunaway, author of the study Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior, is that community members have a harder time getting information that holds local governments accountable. Think the Raleigh News and Observer’s work. And if they can find it online, say at, government and campaign websites, well, the question of bias and self-serving interest exists. Studies, too, have shown that without local newspaper oversight, local governments tend to spend less and borrow at higher rates (Darr, 2018). So, losing a local paper can mean a loss of accountability or oversight for every level of government below the federal level.
But other losses exist too. Community members may not have access to health, safety or emergency information within a community because a local paper is gone. Think Toledo, Ohio water crisis, the Lee County Alabama tornadoes, or the flooded Nebraska and North Dakota communities. You’d want this information from a local news source, wouldn’t you?
Another issue that arises, says Dunaway, is voter polarization. In the past, voters who lived in communities with a local newspaper could expect to see their local government official or even Congressman glad-handing the locals, especially around election time. They knew the town, the county and represented them federally.
Town halls or one-to-one meetings held by legislators to hear voters were events often covered by the local newspaper. All these things contributed to fundraising, endorsements, and votes for political candidates and in turn, representation in Congress and often jobs and projects for the county and state. But when the local newspaper is gone, candidates no longer have a reason to be visible in their local communities. As a result, voters don’t get to know their local or national political candidates. And, per Dunaway’s study, voters rely more on party cues and national news to inform them for their political decisions (Darr, 2018).
Further, when citizens rely more on national news, they end up getting their voting cues more from national parties and the elites within those parties, i.e., partisan cues. This leads to a different type of information depletion, says Dunaway, because voters are only exposing themselves to one side of the debate then make their decisions based on these signals. In the end, it polarizes voting behavior.
These partisan cues, says Dunaway, come from a political elite, Congressmen, the President and his staff, and party denizens. “When we hear Trump talking about immigration policy or the wall, because we know he is a Republican and a figurehead of the GOP, we take what he says as a cue as what the party stands for and try to connect it to our beliefs,” said Dunaway. “If we disagree with them, then we take it as a cue that we don’t like what the GOP stands for.”
In the end, voters become polarized. “The biggest cause is that elites themselves are becoming more polarizing which means that we are hearing from them all the time and adapting our positions,” said Dunaway. “The public itself is not polarized on issues,” said Dunaway. “The public has become polarized in the sense that they have gone totally tribal.” We are divided, says Dunaway, not for how we agree or disagree on the issues, but because we dislike each other’s sides and each other’s candidates and the policy positions they hold.
As a result, America has lost its balance. From 1787, the nation was designed to work on a state and national level, each with independent authority and equal representation. So, all politics then were local, and local newspapers help keep them that way. But now with the loss of local newspapers, the question becomes: how do you fill this gap?
Libraries can help fill this gap, says Dunaway. Historically, libraries have been a place where people can meet and gather information. Secondly, the library has always been a neutral setting, place where the obligation to provide equal information access for all has been one of its basic tenets.
Some places, like Weare, New Hampshire, have filled that gap by creating their local news source that not only publicizes community events. In the Weare in the World newspaper, Sullivan has activity solicited and published candidate statements during election cycles and the last election for state representatives and senators. Election news made up a big part of the paper, Sullivan said in an email. They also publish public notices and alerts from police, fire, and highway departments.
Libraries can turn to Facebook too. In a recent news article, Facebook complained that they were not getting sufficient enough local news items for their “Today In” service, a service that collects news stories from local outlets, community, and government groups. As another option, libraries can share their local news with Today In and then direct their patrons towards this service.
In some communities, a grassroots web outlet that provides local news updates exist. “Librarians can keep a running tab on the quality of local information related to these websites, and be able to refer people to them,” said Dunaway. They can even keep a running tab on quality, reliable national news sources, says Dunaway.
Libraries are good places for forums with moderated civil discussions. Here, local politicians and government officials get a chance to talk about local government activities thereby creating a space where both sides of the conversation are presented. Forums too give an opportunity for officials to share readily available information about funding or assistance in a crisis- or weather-related emergency, health, safety, and planning information gathered from local, state and national sources. Libraries can then include that information in their catalogs.
Finally, libraries can become a news aggregator, a web application for gathering together syndicated and local web content like podcasts or blogs. While it involves tech expertise and resources, says Dunaway, libraries would have a one-stop shop for different information sources that pertain to local library users, making it easier for people in the local community to retrieve it.
In the end, Weare Public Library and Mike Sullivan filled a gap created by the loss of their local newspaper because they were needed. True, running a newspaper is not a perfect fit for a library, says Sullivan, but still, public libraries take on whatever is needed for their community. Since information and information access is the library’s wheelhouse, taking it a step further by sharing local community information makes sense especially when there is no local newspaper to do it anymore.
Abernathy, P. M. (2018). The Expanding News Desert. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC School of Media and Journalism.
Anderson, M. (2018, September 10). About a quarter of rural Americans say access to high-speed internet is a major problem. Retrieved from Pew Research: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/10/about-a-quarter-of-rural-americans-say-access-to-high-speed-internet-is-a-major-problem/
Darr, J. M. (2018). Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior. Journal of Communication, 1-22.
Hindman, M. (2011). Less of the Same, Lack of Local News on the Internet. Washington DC: Federal Communications Commission.
Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine. She hold a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.