News deserts have continued to grow, leaving a number of communities without access to local news outlets. But initiatives across North America are aiming to change that.

By Desilon Daniels

Local news organisations are essential for democracy: their coverage ensures that local politics receives public attention; encourages civic engagement at the local level; and even minimises polarisation at the national level, according to a recent report. Quality local news provides communities with the information they need to effectively hold government to account and enable citizen participation in the political process.

But local news is under considerable pressure. Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers have closed in the United States alone and more than 65 million people in the US live in counties with only one local newspaper or none at all. And in Canada, more than 300 newspapers, broadcasters, and news websites have shut down across 214 communities between 2008 and 2020.

The newsrooms that have survived face declining revenue as advertisers move online and the impact of audience fragmentation. With a fall in local newsrooms, partisan outlets and disinformation have become more widespread, filling the spaces where accurate and trusted news once resided.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought additional strains, with further closures of local news outlets along with layoffs and staff furloughs. In Canada, for instance, it was announced in May 2020 that Torstar Corporation – a company that owned half a dozen daily newspapers, including the Toronto Star, and about 70 community newspapers – would be sold and privatised.

But quality local news is needed now more than ever. In the US, this need is demonstrated in a survey by the Pew Research Center which revealed that 6-in-10 Americans (61%) said they followed news about the pandemic equally at both the national and local level. Around 1-in-4 Americans (23%) said they followed news at the local level more, compared to around 15% who said they followed COVID-19 news more at the national level.

In response to the worsening conditions facing local news, a number of public media, private and non-profit organisations have stepped up to fill in the gaps, both in the US and Canada.

United States

One recent initiative to fight the crisis facing local news is the 2021 reporting corps by Report for America, which will expand more than 200 newsrooms with 300 journalists. What is notable about this 2021 reporting corps is its diversity – 135 of the journalists are people of colour. “By better reflecting their communities, Report for America’s partner newsrooms will be better positioned to gain the trust of their audiences, amidst the national reckoning on race,” Report for America said. The organisation is also piloting an “experienced corps” featuring 11 mid-to-late career journalists who will provide editorial support in their assigned newsrooms. Around 45% of benefiting newsrooms will be daily newspapers, while 19% will be digital; 18% radio; 12% news services/collaborations; 3% television; and 3% weeklies/magazines. Report for America said it plans to increase to 1,000 local journalists across the US by 2024 and transform local news economics to make the reporting resources permanent.

The initiative is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting  (CPB), who is collaborating with the GroundTruth Project to fund 10 of the full-time corps journalists at local public radio stations. From 2021-2023, CPB – the federal government’s steward for public broadcasting investment – will provide nearly $650,000 to fully cover reporters’ salaries in the first year and 42% in the second, with the remaining 58% being paid for by Report for America and stations.

“CPB and Report for America are both committed to strengthening local journalism. By working together, we will increase journalism capacity at 10 public radio stations that are essential sources of local news in their communities,” Pat Harrison, CPB President and CEO, said.


National Public Radio (NPR) has also been doing its part to save local journalism. Its Collaborative Journalism Network brings the public broadcaster and its member stations together to “tell the story of the whole country from everywhere in the country.” Through collaboration, NPR intends to increase investigative reporting projects, bring more local and regional stories to its national programmes, and enrich its national programming with voices and perspectives from communities across the country. As of March 2020, there were three collaborative newsrooms, with plans to create more.

Even Facebook has revealed plans to provide $5 million to local journalists to support independent local journalism on its new publishing platform. Its latest initiative gives priority to journalists covering Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) audiences in communities without existing news sources. Facebook has had a strained relationship with local news outlets. While the social media company had previously tested a local news section of its app, it struggled to find local news stories due to emerging news deserts. Journalist unions and news organisations have been critical of Facebook, accusing the company of driving news deserts, exploiting local journalism, taking up significant shares of digital advertising revenue, and spreading the very disinformation and partisanship that local journalism aims to fight.


In 2019, the Canadian government launched the Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) to support the production of “original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada.” LJI makes funding available to Canadian news organisations for their full-time and freelance journalists. Through a Creative Commons license, all produced content is made available to media organisations, with the aim of keeping Canadians better informed. The initiative was recently renewed, with News Media Canada continuing the programme’s operation over the next three years.

Meanwhile, both private and public news organisations have also launched projects to support local journalism, such as Overstory Media Group’s plans to hire 250 new journalists and launch 50 new outlets by 2023 and CBC/Radio-Canada’s Local News Matters initiative. The public broadcaster’s initiative is an online directory that makes it easier for Canadians to “find and support local media serving their communities”.

According to CBC/Radio-Canada’s Chair Michael Goldbloom: “As misinformation about COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, especially on social media, we are seeing the vital role that trusted local journalism plays across the country. Support for local news organisations has never been more important.”

local news
A screenshot of CBC/Radio-Canada’s Local News Matters initiative. Click the image to find out more. Credit: CBC/Radio-Canada

While Local News Matters provides sources outside of the public broadcaster, the directory acts as an important public service by directing audiences to local news. In doing so, it contributes to pluralism in the media landscape, which is a key value of public service media.

The availability of robust and sustainable local journalism is not only key to building public knowledge, but also to the underpinning of informed democracy. As impartial, publicly funded organisations, public media can play an important role in helping to sustain local reporting while mutually benefiting from local expertise and the additional coverage it produces.

But while the need for quality local journalism has never been greater, the challenges facing it in the North American context require collaborative solutions. And these collaborations can be multisectoral. We have seen how public media and private organisations have come together in the areas of sport, education – particularly during the pandemic, such as a collaboration between PBS and the Smithsonian – and entertainment. As an important element of community cohesion and democracy, local journalism requires the same.