The Gleaner, the local newspaper in Henderson, Ky., has sections focused on features, sports, news and opinion.
What it doesn’t have: a single reporter on staff.
The publication is one of the “ghost newsrooms” that increasingly dot the American media landscape—newspapers that have little to no on-the-ground presence in the localities whose name they bear. It is a sobering development in an industry that has been brought to its knees by the rise of digital media and large technology companies.
The Gleaner newsroom once bustled with a staff of around 20. Now, it doesn’t have an office—it was closed a few years ago—and most of its content comes from other publications owned by its parent company: Gannett, home of USA Today and over 200 local news outlets including the Courier & Press of nearby Evansville, Ind.
What coverage there is of Henderson, a northwestern Kentucky city of about 30,000, is left to a few freelancers—including a husband-and-wife team that averages a few stories a month for the Gleaner, which publishes five days a week.
Dozens of newspapers across the country don’t have a single full-time reporter dedicated to that publication, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis and industry observers.
Many newspapers “are so depleted in staff, or maybe have no staff, that they’re not able to provide the sort of communication the residents in that community need to make wise decisions,” said Penelope Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University and lead author of a recent report on the state of local news in the U.S.
In some places—including Henderson—startups have sprouted to cover the issues that no longer appear in the local paper’s pages, but not to a degree large enough to offset the decline of established news publications, the study said.
The lack of local-news coverage could make it more difficult to detect corruption, journalists and industry observers say. They cite the importance of covering hot-button topics, especially as localities confront a number of societal issues, including school curricula and policing.
“Who’s holding people accountable?” asked Peter Bhatia, CEO of the Houston Landing, a new nonprofit news organization covering Houston, and former editor of Gannett’s Detroit Free Press. “There’s just got to be somebody watching.”
The hollowing out of local newsrooms comes as waves of consolidation and layoffs have significantly changed the country’s news landscape over the past decade. Smaller outlets were hit particularly hard by sharp declines in circulation and incursions into their online advertising businesses from tech giants such as Google and Facebook.
Gannett and many other local news publishers are dealing with declining revenue and high debt levels. In Gannett’s view, sharing resources such as editorial staff and content between publications enables its newsrooms to “focus on high-impact local journalism and to share best practices,” a spokeswoman said.
Chuck Stinnett, one of the Henderson Gleaner’s freelancers, said the paper used to closely cover the county’s government and industry when he worked there full time as a reporter and later business editor. In the 1980s, he investigated a faltering local savings-and-loan association that ultimately collapsed. Before his time, the paper exposed municipal-government cronyism that led the city to convert to a city-manager form of government, he said.
“We were always there, always watching, always reporting,” said Stinnett, who took a voluntary buyout in 2015. “The presence of somebody scribbling notes in the corner—as it is, I’m sure, in every town—helped keep city fathers on the straight-and-narrow.”
Now, Stinnett and his wife Donna Stinnett, a former reporter and features editor who joined the paper on the same day he did, just two weeks after they got married, mostly write features, such as a profile of a new resident and a piece about the remodeling of the local Walmart.
Last week, Northwestern published a study about the state of local news that cited research showing that about half of the 70 smallest papers owned by Gannett and Lee Enterprises—two of the nation’s largest local-news publishers—had no listing of any local journalists on staff.
Abernathy said the study only looked at extremely small publications, and that there are likely to be ghost newsrooms among larger local papers.
“We think the problem is much bigger,” she said.
Lee Enterprises, whose website lists about 80 local news outlets in the U.S. including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Arizona Daily Star, declined to comment for this article.
Gannett declined to say how many of its local papers had no reporters on staff. It said it built a “network of shared resources” around its USA Today brand that “supports and champions our small and mid-sized newsrooms.”
About 2½ newspapers are disappearing in the U.S. every week, according to the Northwestern study, and the country has lost almost two-thirds of its newspaper journalists since 2005. The decline of local news is having an outsize impact on the entire media industry because the study said that until recently, as much as 85% of the news that ultimately made national headlines was first published in a local newspaper.
Brad Vidmar, a reporter for the Hawk Eye, a Burlington, Iowa-based news organization that is part of Community Media Group, said reporters have story quotas, and employees sometimes wear many hats: One woman, he said, designs and copy edits the Hawk Eye, along with a handful of other CMG-owned papers, while she also helps run the Daily Democrat in Fort Madison, a 30-minute drive from Burlington.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “You have to be very deliberate in your planning.”
CMG Chairman Larry Perrotto said when CMG bought the Hawk Eye late last year from Gannett, it had barely any staff. The paper has since brought in more people, including veterans who opted to come back, he said.
“We had to virtually start over,” he said.
Gannett last year laid off around 600 employees, and Lee has reduced its head count as well. This year, Gannett said it “has hired more than 500 content roles and we are currently recruiting 176 more roles for newsrooms across the country.”
Gannett recently made headlines when it posted two unusual reporting jobs: gigs to cover singers Taylor Swift and Beyoncé full time. The publisher said the new roles were part of a core strategy to rethink coverage, including dedicating whole jobs to covering big personalities and topics that appeal to national audiences and drive revenue. “This is how we save local journalism,” Kristin Roberts, Gannett Media’s chief content officer, told the Journal at the time.
Beth Smith, a longtime reporter covering crime and courts for the Gleaner, said she was one of its last full-time reporters before leaving in 2021. “As we lost staff, it became more like just an extension of the [Evansville Courier & Press],” she said.
The Hendersonian, a startup from Henderson native Vince Tweddell, is trying to fill the void.
The site launched in February and covers local issues and politics. Recent stories include a series on the opioid epidemic and a piece on citizen concerns that a planned distillery could cause fungus to grow on nearby properties.
Most stories are written by Tweddell, who teaches a writing class at a local university on the side. The Hendersonian also counts the Stinnetts, the Gleaner freelancers, as contributors.
Both the site and a monthly paper edition, 5,000 copies of which are printed every month, are free. Tweddell said the advertising revenue is enough for him to turn a small profit, and he is launching a new $6-a-month subscription newsletter that will come out twice a week.
Several other news startups—including the Houston Landing, the Mississippi Free Press, El Paso Matters and the Tri-City Record in New Mexico—have been launched in recent years in an attempt to revamp local news and reseed news deserts.
Ty Rushing, a chief political correspondent for the Iowa Starting Line, a digital publisher dedicated to news in the state, last year stumbled on a story that he said had gone uncovered by the Gannett-owned Ames Tribune: Zearing, a small town in the same county as Ames, had failed to submit its budget on time, resulting in an important property-tax revenue shortfall.
Gannett declined to say how many full-time staff reporters the Ames Tribune had.
Rushing ended up covering that story himself. The Des Moines Register, one of Gannett’s larger regional outlets, followed Rushing’s coverage with its own story three days later. That same story also ran in the Ames Tribune.
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