Why local US newspapers are sounding the alarm

In the past decade, hundreds of local US newspapers have closed or merged. What happens to the communities they leave behind?

A hundred and twenty years ago, a wooden auditorium was built in the hills of Boulder, Colorado, as part of the Chautauqua movement, a lecture circuit/educational variety show for rural communities. In early June, Dave Krieger got on stage in the Chautauqua auditorium to tell the city’s residents why he got fired from the local newspaper – and why he’s worried about the future of local news in the US.

Boulder isn’t an average American town – the city of 100,000 has multiple federal research centres, a growing tech scene and a median single-family home price above $1m (£752,000) – but its daily newspaper is following a path of decline that many local news outlets have trod already – some all the way to closure. That newspaper, the Daily Camera, was founded right before the Chautauqua, as Boulder grew.

Now some of the community’s residents are asking – how long will the 128-year-old paper last?

About 1,800 local papers have closed or merged since 2004, according to data from researchers at University of North Carolina. The reasons for newspaper closures are well-known – internet advertising destroying the traditional business models, readers moving towards more online and more free news. In Boulder and in nearby Denver, there’s also a question of ownership.

But what’s less well-known is the impact on communities who lose a local paper.

Ten years ago, a natural experiment into this question happened in Denver. The Rocky Mountain News, one of the city’s two competing papers, went under, shutting down a newsroom of 200.

Susan Greene, then a reporter and columnist for the Rocky’s competitor, the Denver Post, wasn’t celebrating.

“Journalism is a competitive enterprise and so we were always free to write whatever we needed to, write whatever the story called for,” she says.

“When they went under it was just was clear that that dynamic would change, so that if the governor or the mayor or [district attorney] or some mogul in town didn’t want a story, or some advertisers didn’t want a story, it would be much easier for the management to acquiesce.”

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