Duke University’s media center takes a well-researched look at local news decline. But will it tackle a major funder’s role in exacerbating the problem?


By Julie Reynolds

A recent report on the state of local news, published by Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, shows that crucial news is severely lacking in many small U.S. communities, including some that are home to Digital First Media newspapers.

What it didn’t address was whether and how news ownership such as by Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund led by Duke alum and donor Heath Freeman affects this demise of local coverage, though the study’s author says future research will likely dig into that issue.

The study, “Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News,” aimed to make up for deficiencies in other research that often focused on the impact of news coverage in at most a few communities.

Instead, this research presents “a rigorous, replicable methodological approach to assessing the robustness of local journalism across a large number of communities,” wrote the report’s authors, Philip M. Napoli, Matthew Weber, Katie McCollough and Qun Wang.

“The ‘news deserts’ we feared will come are already here.”

The group looked at 100 small cities across the U.S. and, after examining more than 16,000 news stories, found that (and I quote):

  • Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local – that is actually about or having taken place within – the municipality.
  • Eight communities contained no stories addressing critical information needs.
  • Twelve communities contained no original news stories.
  • Twenty communities contained no local news stories.

In other words, the “news deserts” we feared will come are already here.

“We have a very strong tradition of commercial journalism. People can’t bear to give up on that model.” – Prof. Philip Napoli


“This is a random sample of community journalism across the U.S.” Napoli said in a phone interview. “We all assume this represents a shift, that these numbers represent (newsroom) declines starting years ago.”

Napoli’s team has put their data collection online, so we took a look.

Of the 100 towns across the U.S., at least six are — or were — covered by Digital First Media newspapers. A number of others had newspapers owned by GateHouse, a chain controlled by an investment fund manager.

The DFM towns examined include Boulder, Colo., and five California communities: Glendora, Pasadena, Vacaville, Antioch and Walnut Creek. (Digital First has shut down The Contra Costa Times, which once covered two of those towns: Antioch and Walnut Creek.)

Duke’s findings add to the growing body of research chronicling the decline of local news coverage in the United States.

To be clear, the report didn’t attempt to get into the causes of local news’s death spiral, offering only a quick explanation that “it has been difficult for news organizations to attract the same kind of subscription revenue (online) that they were able to attract for their print product.”

But report author Napoli has since said that future reports should include media ownership in the analysis “to see if ownership influences the quality and quantity of news and information provided to a community.”

The University of North Carolina’s Penny Abernathy has already looked at this, and Napoli says he’ll soon be working with Abernathy, merging their data to get even more informed results.

“The agreement’s in place, we’re just waiting for funding to come through,” Napoli said.

Among the questions the next round of research could probe is how news ownership affects the type of reporting an outlet produces.

“Is it a hedge-fund-owned paper? If that is a variable that emerges as significant, that would be very interesting,” Napoli said. “We could also look at family versus public ownership.”

Napoli said he’s also interested in looking at U.S. labor statistics that show how newsroom employment has changed in those 100 cities. As far as the future of local news, Napoli is interested in nonprofit models or the kind of government support seen in other countries (like the BBC and CBC. But he acknowledges the U.S. seems loathe to go those routes. “We have a very strong tradition of commercial journalism,” he said. “People can’t bear to give up on that model.”

“One of greatest contributors to the rapid decline of local news is a well-known Duke alum and donor, Heath Freeman.”

The elephant in the room

Conversations among prominent media watchers about the Duke report have failed to note the elephant in the room: that one of greatest contributors to the rapid decline of local news is a well-known Duke alum and donor, Heath Freeman. Freeman played football at Duke and he and his family have donated millions to the university.

Freeman is, of course, the budget-slashing president of hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Alden owns DFM, the news chain that’s been laying off reporters at twice the national rate; shuttering and selling newspaper offices, forcing employees to work from home or coffee shops; and refusing to give even cost-of-living raises while Freeman and his partner Randall Smith live lavishly.

“It’s just shameful,” said Lisa Krieger, a reporter at DFM’s San Jose Mercury News and a Duke alumnus. “That is money that Alden Global Capital is taking away. Duke is profiting from it.”

Earlier this year, after DFMworkers.org published articles detailing Duke’s connections to Freeman, the NewsGuild sent a letter to Duke’s president asking that the university cut ties with Freeman, a call that was brushed off by president Vincent Price’s office.

But a student editorial in the Duke Chronicle pushed back: “As opinion journalists dedicated to commenting on the state of the University, we condemn the actions of those like Freeman who seek to destroy—whether intentionally or unintentionally—local journalism through self-serving capitalistic purposes.”

Bill Adair, who heads the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, didn’t respond to an email asking about the university’s connections to Freeman. Still, the issue is likely to come up at an upcoming Duke summit on the crisis in local news.

The Freeman controversy “sort of reminds me of some of the other binds that I notice in this space,” Napoli said. For example, he noted, “A lot of the funding that supports this kind of research comes from the tech companies that have hurt news revenue.”