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Newspaper cuts leave communities like Arlington, Texas, without vital local coverage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than half of U.S. counties now only have one newspaper or none at all. It is estimated that one-fifth of Americans live in these so-called news deserts. Studies show this information crisis is hurting voter turnout and civic engagement. And it's contributing to divisions in America. From member station KERA in Dallas, Kailey Broussard reports on the largest news desert in Texas.

KAILEY BROUSSARD, BYLINE: Newsmakers in Arlington, Texas, often bristle when their city is called a suburb. It's one of the largest midsized cities in the country with some 400,000 residents. It's home to the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Rangers. But it gets overshadowed by its big neighboring cities. It's wedged between Dallas, which has a population of 1.3 million, and Fort Worth, home to almost 1 million people. O.K. Carter watched Arlington transform as a former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher.

O K CARTER: It ends up being sort of a hub for tourism and visitation, not just for the state, but for the entire area. Meanwhile, you've got an entire city that's trying to grow and compete with other places.

BROUSSARD: Two newspapers reported on that growth in the '90s. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News both launched Arlington publications. They competed fiercely for scoops, readers and ad dollars. But eventually, the Arlington Morning News and Arlington Star-Telegram got absorbed into their parent papers. Deep cuts to the newspaper industry meant less and less Arlington coverage. Today, those papers cover Arlington sports, crime and its food scene. But Carter says the city is missing local government coverage that's vital to their community.

CARTER: You'll go to a city council meeting and there will be no reporter there. You'll go to a school board meeting for a school district with 65,000 students and there'll be no reporter there.

BROUSSARD: Cities like Arlington are considered news deserts. Penelope Muse Abernathy is a leading expert on the phenomenon. She says they're commonly found in rural and more suburban cities, even those outside major areas.

PENELOPE MUSE ABERNATHY: We see this in New York City, for example. We see this around Los Angeles. The news gets dominated in these major metro markets by the television stations and by the newspapers which tend to be more national and regional in focus.

BROUSSARD: Abernathy is a journalism professor at Northwestern University. Her research has found that over half of U.S. counties have either one newspaper in town or zero newspapers. Tarrant County, which includes Arlington, gets coverage from multiple regional papers. But staff cuts over the past couple of decades mean those papers have fewer reporters, which means there's less coverage of vital local news. Here's Abernathy.

ABERNATHY: One of the problems is that a tax increase, a zoning dispute may not be even of relevance to the journalists who are covering the city at the regional papers. And so you end up being uninformed.

BROUSSARD: Neither the Dallas Morning News nor the Star-Telegram has a full-time Arlington reporter. The Dallas paper's executive editor, Katrice Hardy, wrote in an email that its reporters cover Arlington as part of their beats, as they do other cities in North Texas. Studies, including one from Northwestern, have linked the decline of local journalism to lower voter turnout, higher government spending and increased polarization. Arlington citizen groups and individuals have tried to fill the gap themselves. A former city council member founded Arlington Today Magazine, which publishes positive stories about the city and promotes business. Yale Youngblood is the magazine's former editor.

YALE YOUNGBLOOD: We tried to celebrate advances, victories - whatever - in the community, in the city government, like new restaurants, new businesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hey, Arlington, let's take a look at your headlines.

BROUSSARD: And the Arlington City government's communication team runs robust television and digital channels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Watch this year's budget video on the city's YouTube channel, which features a cooking show and the ingredients it takes in creating the proposed budget.

BROUSSARD: Former editor O.K. Carter says these efforts aren't journalism, they're boosterism.

CARTER: Some of them may be trying to be fair, but they're always going to show you their best side. You're not going to see the negative things. You're not going to see the fights at the city council meeting.

BROUSSARD: Nationally, a group of philanthropies, including the MacArthur Foundation, has recently launched a fundraising effort to put half a billion dollars into expanding and improving local news. But Abernathy says philanthropy, nonprofit and digital startups have a long way to go to replenish local news.

ABERNATHY: There's just no way national philanthropy or even community philanthropy can pivot that quickly in the short term, and maybe not even in the long term.

BROUSSARD: The United States has lost an average of more than two papers per week since 2005 despite increased funding from philanthropies.

For NPR News, I'm Kailey Broussard in Arlington, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kailey Broussard