No News is Bad News
In 2017, Fourth Economy mapped more than 1,700 of the 8,000 retail closings across the United States. Since that time, the outlook for retail has grown even more dim. According to Business Insider retailers may close 6,000 stores in 2020 after 9,300 store closings announced in 2019. Many of the earlier closings reflected more of a shift in retail formats rather than a complete collapse. As troubling as these trends have been, there is an even greater industry collapse happening in newspaper publishing.
Overall, the retail closings have been offset by new store openings. Despite the thousands and thousands of store closings reported in the news, the U.S. has had a net loss of less than 2,700 retail establishments from 2001 to 2019, and there are still more than 1 million retail establishments in the U.S. That translates to a loss of 2.5 for every 1,000 retail establishments.
In 2001, the U.S. had 9,300 newspaper publishing establishments. By 2019 we had only 6,966. This loss of more than 2,300 newspaper establishments is nearly as great in absolute terms as the loss of retail establishments, but it represents a 25% decline in establishments. To put that into perspective, that is the loss of 250 out of every 1,000 establishments.
During that same period, employment in the retail sector actually grew by nearly 420,000 jobs compared to a loss of nearly 273,000 for newspapers - a decline of 67 percent. I am admittedly outdated in my penchant for newspapers. I still like to get the printed copies. What is happening to newspaper publishers, however, is not simply the shift from paper to online news. In many communities, it is a complete loss of journalism and news reporting. The decline of local newspapers and the journalism they provide is reflected in a story about Pottstown, PA. The story of The Mercury in Pottstown is being repeated in various forms as news deserts are appearing all over the country:
Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly...
...between 1,300 and 1,400 communities that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all.
News readership has long been declining, but we are now nearing the point of collapse. New business models are emerging, mostly digital, that may hold some promise to fill the void in local news, but in more cases than not, those models are not replacing the quality of journalism that is being lost. Amid all of the struggle that we face in the current COVID-19 crisis, this may seem a trivial thread to pull, but if you believe that a free (and vibrant) press is essential to our democracy, then this is exactly when we should be concerned about this loss.