‘News Deserts’ Expert Penny Abernathy Joins Medill as Visiting Professor

Penny Abernathy, whose groundbreaking research has shown the growth of the nation’s “news deserts,” will become a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Abernathy will start next month in the position after retiring as Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media for the last 12 years.

Cindy Burnham
Penny Abernathy

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker announced Abernathy’s appointment, calling her “the nation’s foremost authority on the worsening crisis of local news deserts across the U.S.”

Abernathy, whose journalism experience includes stints at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Harvard Business Review, said she was excited to work with the Medill Local News Initiative, a project launched in early 2018 to promote financial sustainability for local news organizations.

“For me the attraction of the Local News Initiative is that it is not only identifying the challenges but working aggressively to come up with solutions, whether they be for-profit, nonprofit or ones that require public funding or the like,” she said.

Medill’s [research] is very forward-looking. Mine is very ’in the now.’ You put those two together and it can be a real powerhouse.

Penny Abernathy, new Medill School visiting professor

Abernathy’s “news deserts” research has been cited frequently to show the extent of the crisis in American journalism.  According to her 2020 news deserts report, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared in the last 15 years.

Abernathy said her approach syncs up well with the subscriber behavior analysis being done at the Medill Spiegel Research Center. That includes the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, a tool expected to launch next year that will correlate reader behavior with the acquisition and retention of subscribers.

“Medill’s [research] is very forward-looking. Mine is very ’in the now.’ You put those two together and it can be a real powerhouse,” she said.

Tim Franklin, Medill’s Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News who leads the Medill Local News Initiative, welcomed Abernathy. “Penny’s arrival will help make Medill the nation’s epicenter for local news research and thought leadership at this critical time for the industry,” he said.

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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