The concept of "news deserts" dates back to around 2011. The journalist Laura S. Washington wrote about it as a "communications desert" and attributed the coinage of the concept to a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago. Washington's article entitled "The Paradox of Our Media Age -- And What to Do About It" (In These Times, April 5, 2011) provides a good introduction and context.
Paraphrasing the community organizer, Washington describes a communication desert as a place where vital information does not reach one's neighborhood. The community organizer explains: “We keep talking about the bad stuff...We don’t talk about what’s good that’s going on out in the communities.”
Since 2011, a variety of definitions have emerged. Here is a sampling of definitions from media studies research organizations:
The Columbia Journalism Review provides the following definition:
a media desert or news desert is essentially an uncovered geographical area that has few or no news outlets and receives little coverage.
The Media Deserts Project (a joint research project of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, the Department of Geography and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University) defines a "media desert" as follows:
A geographic area lacking in fresh, local news and information.
The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina) provides the following definition of a news desert:
A community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.
While this definition is broader than some, I think it is helpful for characterizing the full extent of the crisis. The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media gave the following rationales for broadening its definition:
... there is a risk that news deserts are emerging not only in communities without newspapers but also in areas with significantly diminished newspapers. This puts large swaths of the country – especially those that are rural and economically struggling – at risk of becoming news deserts.
... significant diminishment in quality and quantity of news that occurs as a result of financial constraints on the industry and the rise of newspapers owned by investment entities, such as hedge funds and private equity firms. Many newspapers have become ghosts of their former selves, both in terms of the quality and quantity of their editorial content and the reach of their readership. (See What Exactly is a "News Desert", Penelope Muse Abernathy, Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, April 10, 2018.)
Who Owns Your Hometown Newspaper? An interactive map from the folks at UNC's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.
Do You Live in a News Desert? Another interactive map from the folks at UNC's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.
Explore Your State learn about the local news environment in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. Created by UNC's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.
America's Growing News Deserts An interactive map that tallies local newspapers across the country. Created by the Columbia Journalism Review using data from the Alliance for Audited Media.
Media Access Research Atlas Allows users to search by state, county, and ZIP code to see the number of daily newspapers in a region and the percent of the population over the age of 18 that are reading them. The map is part of the Media Deserts Project, a joint research project of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, the Department of Geography and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University.
Newspapers Fact Sheet Provides facts and trends on the newspaper industry. Created by the Pew Research Center, June 13, 2018.
Examples of initiatives to support journalism and recognize its role in society
San Francisco Public Press The San Francisco Public Press is a local nonprofit, noncommercial news organization that does for print and web journalism what public broadcasting has done for radio and television. Through its website and quarterly newspaper, and partnerships with other public media and civic groups, they report on local issues including environment, education, housing, homelessness, labor and elections, and frequently host public events.
IndyBay The San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center (Indybay) is a non-commercial, democratic collective of bay area independent media makers and media outlets, and serves as the local organizing unit of the global Indymedia network.
Reveal (from the Center for Investigative Reporting) Founded in 1977 as the nation’s first nonprofit investigative journalism organization, The Center for Investigative Reporting has developed a reputation for being among the most innovative, credible and relevant media organizations in the country. Reveal – their website, public radio program, podcast and social media platform – is where they publish their multiplatform work.
Banyan Project The Banyan Project aims to strengthen democracy by helping seed community-scale Web journalism cooperatives in underserved communities, then supporting them so they can thrive and best serve the broad public of everyday citizens while engaging their civic energy.
ProPublica An independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. ProPublica was founded in 2007-2008 with the belief that investigative journalism is critical to our democracy.
Saving Community Journalism - The Path to Profitability by Penelope Muse Abernathy, a survival guide for community newspapers.
Knight Foundation: Support Local In 2019, the Knight Foundation doubled its investment in journalism to $300 million to launch a major initiative, focused on rebuilding local news ecosystems in communities across the United States.
The Pulitzer Prize: Journalism Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded annually since 1917. A Pulitzer Prize Winner may be an individual, a group of individuals, or a news organization's staff.
Online Journalism Award (OJA) Since 2000, the OJAs have recognized the best of digital journalism.
Hearst Journalism Award The Hearst Journalism Awards Program, was founded in 1960, to provide support, encouragement, and assistance to journalism education at the college and university level. The program awards scholarships to students for outstanding performance in college-level journalism, with matching grants to the students’ schools.