A ‘news pioneer’ looks back and ahead

Penny Abernathy tells why the study of local news became her mission, why she chose the term ‘news deserts’ over ‘news vacuums,’ and what signs of hope she sees amid an ailing industry


If Penny Abernathy’s sole accomplishment had been identifying and raising awareness of “news deserts” across the country, her legacy in the local news world would have been secure.

But she has done much more than that in a career that has spanned decades and culminated in her oversight of the State of Local News Project at the University of North Carolina and, over the past three years, at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. This comprehensive annual report has become a must-read across the local news industry as it chronicles, in painstaking detail, the loss of local news outlets and journalism jobs, warns of communities in danger of losing local news and the implications for our democracy, and spotlights outlets that are innovating solutions that may offer brighter paths forward.

On the occasion of her retirement, Tim Franklin, director of the Medill Local News Initiative and the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern University, sat down with Abernathy for a program last month titled “Celebrating a News Pioneer.” Before an in-studio and online audience, they discussed her impactful career and assessed the state of local news then, now and moving forward.

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