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Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?

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"More of American life now occurs in shadow. And we cannot know what we do not know," said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, testifying at a 2009 Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing on the future of news.

New research suggests that fewer people vote after their communities lose a daily print newspaper. Fewer run for office. Fewer boycott – or buy – something based on what they think of a company's values. Fewer contact public leaders to voice opinions. Fewer pitch in with neighborhood groups. More incumbent politicians get reelected. And these things happen despite the presence of digital and broadcast media.

What you don't know may hurt you

Tom Stites founded the Banyan Project – an initiative to develop reader-owned, online news cooperatives, which he incubated as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society – because he worries about "news deserts."

"A news desert is a community whose sources of original reporting have dried up entirely, or are diminished to the point where they can no longer fill the information needs of the communities they serve," he explains. Mr. Stites is working to build a pilot website in Haverhill, Mass., a place he describes as "an obvious news desert."

The town used to have a daily paper. But in 1998, the daily Haverhill Gazette was sold and pared down to once a week.

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