Yet another local news organization has been shuttered. The Philomath Express has been shut down after nearly six years of weekly publishing. The decision was reportedly due to financial struggles related to insufficient advertising and subscriptions, problems that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The paper belonged to the same company that owns the Corvallis Gazette-Times, Albany Democrat-Herald, and Lebanon Express newspapers. The Philomath newspaper was a one-man operation that covered hyperlocal community news and events, and was run by former Gazette-Times staff member Brad Fuqua throughout its lifespan.
Gazette-Times Editor Bennett Hall gave Fuqua high marks for his community journalism work: “Brad Fuqua did a terrific job of capturing the essence of Philomath in his reporting, from news stories to features to sports coverage.”
Hall said it’s always hard on a community to lose its hometown newspaper, adding that the Gazette-Times would do its best to fill the gap by increasing its Philomath coverage.
A quarter of all U.S. newspapers have died in the past 15 years, a recent University of North Carolina news deserts study found. These closures affect at least 1,800 communities, creating news deserts – areas without consistent press coverage. These deserts were spreading before the pandemic and have only continued expanding as COVID-19 squeezes budgets.
“The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us, yet again, of the vital importance of local news,” the report stated. “Yet, at this very moment, local news organizations, large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, are confronting a dire economic threat to their existence.”
Moving to digital platforms has not been the industry savior some had hoped for. UNC researchers found 525 digital news sites at the community level in 2018. While 80 new organizations launched since then, the same number have closed.
The report said that since 2018, another 300 newspapers died for a total of 2,100 out of the 9,000 newspapers that were standing in 2004, adding another 500 communities to the list of those that see no original reporting in print or online.
Most are economically challenged rural areas, but news deserts are also creeping into the cities and suburbs.
Some publications are turning to the government for help, though the response has been limited. Five recent bills in Congress were aimed at small business loans, public service advertising, pension debt relief, and tax credits for newsroom staff.
“Will our actions – or inactions – lead to an ‘extinction-level event’ of local newspapers and other struggling news outlets, as predicted by some in the profession,” the report asked. “Or will they lead to a reset: an acknowledgment of what is at stake if we lose local news, as well as a recommitment to the civic mission of journalism and a determination to support its renewal?”