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Democracy Work: News Deserts Are Democracy Deserts, Too

Jennifer Lawless
Photo provided

More than 2,000 local newspapers have closed over the past 20 years, leaving some parts of the country in what's known as a "news desert." This week, we examine what impact that's had on civic engagement and democratic participation — and look at ways people are trying to make local news great again.

The connection between local news and democracy goes back to the Founding Fathers and particularly to Alex de Tocqueville. We explore the rise, fall, and potential rebirth of local news this week with Jennifer Lawless, Commonwealth professor of politics at the University of Virginia and co-author with Danny Hayes of the forthcoming book "News Hole: The Decline of Newspapers and the Future of American Democracy."

In the golden age of newspapers, the "news hole" was the section of the paper not taken up by advertising — aka where the stories, photos, sports scores, TV listings, weather, and everything else lived. Though that dynamic still exists, the term news hole has taken on a whole other meaning that's literally a hole in a community without a local news organization.

This conversation is critically important in the height of election season as people across the U.S. vote for the more than 500,000 local elected positions across the country. As we heard from Mirya Holman in the Sheriffs 101 episode, it can often be difficult to find accurate, credible information about these candidates without local news organizations    

Jenna Spinelle is the Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. She is responsible for shaping all of the institute's external communication, including website content, social media, multimedia, and media outreach.