The Dominion Post

How rivals were trumped by a crisis in journalism

US research suggests Trump’s rise matched a decline in local reporting, writes.


Did the collapse of local journalism help give us Donald Trump? That’s the intriguing thesis of new research published by Politico. Reporters Shawn Musgrave and Matthew Nussbaum compared election results with overall trends in how many people in a given area actually subscribe to a newspaper. As they write:

‘‘The results show a clear correlatio­n between low subscripti­on rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to [Mitt] Romney in 2012.’’

Politico reports that overall Trump outperform­ed Mitt Romney in 2012 in regions where newspaper subscripti­on rates were low, but was highly likely to be bested by Hillary Clinton – and to underperfo­rm Romney – in areas where newspaper subscripti­on rates remain high. Politico turned to the Alliance for Audited Media, which verifies circulatio­n figures for the industry, to pull subscripti­on numbers on what they described as ‘‘more than 1000 mainstream news publicatio­ns.’’

As Politico reported: ‘‘For every 10 per cent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points.’’

Moreover, when Politico compared rural regions with weak economies where newspaper subscripti­on rates remained strong to similar areas where those rates fell, they discovered Trump underperfo­rmed Romney in many of the counties where newspaper circulatio­n remained relatively strong but outperform­ed him where those rates declined.

Taken all together, the report highlights the vital and underappre­ciated role local newspapers play in the media ecosystem, and make it clear that we allow them to wither away at our own peril.

It certainly seems like common sense that people who read any trusted local mainstream media newspaper will be more informed than those who do not. But when local news goes away, or is harder to access, people will only have online sources of informatio­n. And while we all like to imagine that people scrolling social media for informatio­n are turning to a national American giant like, well, The Post, they could be reading the latest postings from a Russian bot, or checking out the latest rant from conspiracy theorist du jour QAnon, or not reading any news at all.

Meanwhile, Trump regularly makes all sorts of less-thantruthf­ul statements. As Politico notes, Trump’s Twitter feed has more followers than American newspapers have subscriber­s in total. While the reputable mainstream outlets fact check that stuff with regularity, that won’t matter much to people who aren’t reading them.

The withering away of local news creates another problem.

It helps to think of local media as a gateway drug for the big national outlets. People know their local journalist­s. They are a familiar presence. It’s hard to credibly bash the men and women you regularly see covering the school board meeting every month as promoters of fake news. And they validate the national news – often from the wire services – published by their newspaper.

I was once one of those journalist­s. I spent evenings at small town suburban city hall and school board meetings, and days interviewi­ng local activists and uncovering wrong doing, not to mention attending store openings and library closings. People in those cities knew me – and they came to trust me, regularly seeking me out, to give me leads, or simply tell me what they thought about the events of the day.

But the chances of running into someone like my younger self is much smaller today than 20 years ago. It may seem like the best of times for journalism. Almost every day an investigat­ive piece drops

Trump’s Twitter feed has more followers than American newspapers have subscriber­s in total.

from a major name brand newspaper, whether it’s on Harvey Weinstein’s multi-decade sexual harassment spree or Trump’s latest exercise in self-dealing.

But looks are deceiving. Remove the marquee brands, and the industry is ailing. Newspaper employment in the United States is down 50 per cent from the millennium. The once vibrant alternativ­e press is but a shadow of its self. As Politico points out, one out of five news jobs are now based in New York, Washington or Los Angeles. The comparable number in 2004? One in eight. Local news coverage has, correspond­ingly, withered. And that, in turn, leads to less political engagement.

And if local journalist­s have long served as a validator of news from far away Washington and New York and Los Angeles, when local news doesn’t exist it can’t play that role of trusted intermedia­ry. If voters don’t know any journalist­s, it’s easier for a would-be demagogue to tell people what they want to hear, while vilifying those journalist­s from the big city who would tell them the truth as playing them for a bunch of rubes. The truth teller is demonised, while the con goes all but unchalleng­ed.

Do you really need me to tell you who wins in that scenario? We all know who lives in the White House now. The con is winning – at least for now.

– The Washington Post

 ?? PHOTO: ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF ?? Good, trusted local journalism is a strong counter to the rise of corruption and dictatoria­l elements, according to research in the United States.
PHOTO: ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF Good, trusted local journalism is a strong counter to the rise of corruption and dictatoria­l elements, according to research in the United States.

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