Guest Columns New Publishing Tech
5 mins read

How technology can help publishers eliminate the threat of news deserts

Since 2005, the U.S. has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025. News deserts pose a threat to local communities and democracy at large, particularly in an age of fake news, but tech can play a key role in reversing the trend. PressReader’s CEO, Ruairí Doyle explains more…

As a cornerstone of democracy, local news plays a crucial role in keeping community members informed about their local government, elections and other social events. However, it’s no exaggeration to say that the newspaper industry is in a crisis. So many papers have shut down in the past couple of decades that it has created what have been dubbed “news deserts” — communities lacking in media outlets that cover local news.

The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM) at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media defines a news desert as “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.” Unfortunately, the collapse of local journalism creates a vacuum which peddlers of disinformation are all too happy to fill.

A widespread worry

How bad is the issue of new deserts? A recent report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communication notes that the U.S. lost more than 360 newspapers between the waning pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022. More than a fifth of US citizens now live in news deserts or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts.

This is bad news for democracy. Recently, PressReader surveyed professionals working in English-language news and publishing around the globe, in order to get a sense of their views on the current state and future direction of the industry — with a particular focus on news deserts. Among other learnings, we found 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.

We commissioned this survey because we wanted to understand the industry’s perception of this problem and drive additional awareness around the issue. We also hoped to uncover possible solutions and ultimately understand the role that PressReader and other technology providers can play in shaping those solutions.

Ruairí Doyle, CEO, PressReader Group of Companies

The industry’s perspective and reasons for hope

There are dangers, but there is still plenty of reason to have hope. In our survey, we asked respondents a series of questions about the future of their industry. We found that news and publishing professionals were predominantly optimistic about technology’s role in slowing down the spread of news deserts moving forward. Here’s what they told us:

  • 48% believed technology might have the capacity to help increase profits in the news and publishing industry overall. 
  • Slightly fewer, 44%, were confident or optimistic that technology could facilitate greater or more sustainable profits for smaller and local publishers as well as independent journalists. 
  • Likewise, 42% were at least somewhat confident or optimistic these technologies could help local publishers and independent journalists remain independent. 
  • Just over half of respondents were confident or optimistic that emerging technologies could help sustain or even increase access to local news. 

Technological transformation and new business models

It’s never too late to take action to tackle this problem. Newspaper publishers who are looking for innovative ways to increase readership are embracing digital transformation and new monetization models. Digital distribution — whether it’s through the publisher’s own website or app, or via a platform like PressReader — opens up new monetization opportunities. It can also allow local publishers to extend their reach to new markets without incurring additional printing and distribution costs.

We witnessed this trend first-hand. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (ADG) has ceased its print edition and 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.

Walter E. Hussman Jr, Publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said “Our print subscribers may have been skeptical at first, but now they love all the interactive features and extra content we can give them. They spend more time engaged with the digital replica, and we know that higher engagement leads to higher retention and lower churn.”

New methods of reaching audiences

In the aforementioned Northwestern/Medill report, researcher Penny Abernathy notes “Technology is providing opportunities to deliver journalism to previously isolated communities in a variety of ways; engage and measure the behaviors of current and new customers; capture sporting and business statistics and then produce basic news stories; scan massive troves of documents; and assemble the data so investigative reporters can see the big picture more clearly.”

Publishers are also exploring new methods of reaching audiences, such as PressReader’s Sponsored Access model. PressReader’s B2B partners, such as public libraries and hotels, provide their customers with access to the world’s most trusted journalism, bringing publishers’ quality news sources or entertainment to new readers. In this way, readers can access the content they trust, brands get a sustainable way to elevate their customer experience, communities can access trusted news outlets through their public libraries or personal subscriptions, and publishers have more ways to grow audited circulation and revenue. PressReader’s Sponsored Access model creates a virtuous cycle that ultimately supports journalism.

As Abernathy writes, “Reviving local news is not about reviving print newspapers. Rather it is about reviving the historic function of strong local journalism.” Technology can provide publishers with the means to get vital information out to local communities, and it can give readers the means to access the news which matters to them. Even if a given community’s local newspaper never comes back in its previous form, a news desert need not be the inevitable result.

Ruairí Doyle
CEO, PressReader Group of Companies

The PressReader Group of Companies (including PressReader, Branded Editions and TextBookHub brands) builds technology solutions for content delivery and consumption, publisher empowerment, content intelligence and brand engagement. On a mission to empower and enrich curious minds by bringing a universe of quality content within reach, the company 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.