What’s a News Desert? If You Live in Clifton, You're Headed for One
If you asked a Clifton resident twenty years ago what local paper they read, there were more than a handful of local papers to choose from including the Clifton Journal, the Herald News, and The Record. Ask a Clifton resident that question today, and they may struggle to name one.
The Consolidation of News in Clifton and North Jersey
The consolidation of local news in Clifton began slowly in the 1970’s and 80’s when several daily newspapers including the Clifton Journal and Dateline Clifton merged to create the Dateline-Journal. In broader Passaic County and North Jersey in the mid 1980’s several regional family-owned papers covering Clifton news merged to eventually form The North Jersey Herald News and The News. Both of those papers then merged in 1987 and were sold to the Borg family, owners of the award-winning paper known for its investigative journalism, The Record. In 1992, the Borg family announced a pooling of resources to cut costs among two of its North Jersey papers and South Jersey’s The Asbury Park Press.
In 2000, the Borg family formed North Jersey Media Group which at its peak ran 50 local newspapers in NJ, including Clifton’s largest weekly newspaper, The Clifton Journal.
But this consolidation accelerated rapidly 5 years ago in 2016, when the Borg family sold North Jersey Media Group to national media company Gannet Co. Inc., the Virginia-based publishers of USA Today. Soon after, as is typical in corporate buyouts, layoffs were announced and the North Jersey news staff was cut in half by over 500.
The 2016 buyout made Gannet the largest news publisher in NJ. A reduction in local news coverage in Clifton was felt vividly compared to the prior four decades of competing coverage by daily and weekly papers.
Clifton also experienced another phenomenon of news media buyouts, “ghost papers,” those that retain the original name but carry little actual local news. This is most evident in the weekly printing of The Clifton Journal, which may contain one Clifton story but no longer covers in-depth weekly community reporting of the city including the City Council and Board of Education meetings, Planning and Zoning Board meetings, Highschool sports, or activities of its many charitable, cultural, religious and community organizations.
Sadly, this trend is happening across the country as out-of-state or national chains buy out community and regional papers. In the decade between 2008 and 2018 due to a combination of the digital revolution, rise of social media, and economic recession, 50% of news staff in American were lost, leaving cities with no source of local news.
What is a News Desert?
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, a news desert is any “uncovered geographical area with few or no news outlets that receives little coverage.” Clifton, in its current state, certainly meets this criteria. A recent survey of NorthJerseymedia.com revealed an average of just one to two Clifton-specific stories per month over the past year, a city listed among the Top 10 largest in the state with over 90,000 residents whose events and stories filled multiple local papers for over 50 years.
Why is local news important?
In the US, local newspapers helps contribute to a sense of community; they narrate, frame and record the debate of issues important to residents. It’s that local debate that helps create social cohesion and nurtures community and political participation.
Economically, local advertising also encouraged main street prosperity. Today, small businesses compete with corporate giants for advertising space on Google and are suppressed by algorithms on social media.
Perhaps most importantly, when there is no local paper to investigate political and corporate activity, coverage of corruption or wrongdoing that keep residents informed simply isn’t done. Research has shown that Americans now rely more on social media for news, but social media is proven to be awash with fake news, partisan news, and other unvetted misinformation despite recent regulation efforts.
In late 2019, Gannet merged with the newspaper chain GateHouse Media owned by New Media Investment Group to create the largest news media company in America. As part of the merger agreement it will be managed by Fortress Investment Group, a Manhattan private equity firm for two years. Who owns Fortress Investment Group? Softbank, a multinational Japanese conglomerate holding company based in Tokyo.
In 2021, The Clifton Times was launched on the Patch Labs platform, a division of the hyperlocal digital news company, Patch, to help fill the void in local news coverage in Clifton. Currently contributed to by 6 Clifton residents experienced in journalism and communications, it is a labor of love. The Patch platform includes free registration for residents to contribute stories, share news, and post events to bring back the local to local news.
Interested in contributing a story about Clifton? Email us at TheCliftonTimes@gmail.com, we’d love to hear from you.