"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.
Not long after, disaster struck the 60,000-person community. Between 1999 and 2001, the town-owned Hale Municipal Hospital lost $15 million, according to Boston Business Journal. Inaccurate filings by a private manager obscured the extent of the problem, which piled on top of preexisting debt and led to the hospital's sale in 2001. Citizens are still on the hook, repaying $7 million annually until 2023.
"I think a good newspaper would have helped our community do a better job," says John Cuneo, who runs a local antipoverty nonprofit. Robust reporting, he suggests, might have mitigated the crisis and given citizens a more critical assessment.
He and other community members say a lack of daily news coverage leaves Haverhill residents in the dark about local events. "If we're throwing a fundraiser or trying to advance a community cause, it's a lot harder to get coverage than it used to be," he explains. (For these reasons and others, Mr. Cuneo now volunteers with the Banyan Project to develop its pilot site, Haverhill Matters.)
Dissenting from the notion that Haverhill is undercovered is Al White, editor of the Eagle-Tribune. The company, whose downtown Haverhill office closed in March, still publishes a regional paper covering more than a dozen towns including Haverhill, along with the weekly Haverhill Gazette.