Can­di­dates can use funds to sup­port lo­cal news

Daily Press - - Opinion - Corey Fried­man jour­nal­ist who ex­plores so­lu­tions to po­lit­i­cal con­flicts from an in­de­pen­dent per­spec­tive. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @corey­writes

View­ers tune them out; vot­ers hate them; and re­searchers call them in­ef­fec­tive. But at­tack ads con­tinue chew­ing up air­time as the slow march to Elec­tion Day be­comes a six-week sprint.

Cam­paigns and po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees are pro­jected to pump $6.7 bil­lion into ad buys dur­ing the 2020 elec­tion cy­cle, ac­cord­ing to an Ad­ver­tis­ing An­a­lyt­ics and Cross Screen Me­dia re­port. Broad­cast tele­vi­sion, ca­ble and ra­dio com­mer­cials will claim the largest share, roughly $4.9 bil­lion.

It’s not just Joe Bi­den and Don­ald Trump. While the pres­i­den­tial race will ac­count for roughly a third of all po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing this year, con­gres­sional cam­paigns are ex­pected to cost $2 bil­lion. State and lo­cal races will pitch in tens of mil­lions more.

Spend­ing those strato­spheric sums is a crap­shoot. The pre­vail­ing wis­dom on po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing is that it can fur­ther en­trench sup­port­ers and op­po­nents, but isn’t likely to sway many un­de­cided vot­ers.

A meta-anal­y­sis pub­lished this month in the Sci­ence Ad­vances jour­nal pro­vides lit­tle for D.C. spin doc­tors to cheer. The ar­ti­cle head­line? “The small ef­fects of po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing are small re­gard­less of con­text, mes­sage, sender, or re­ceiver: Ev­i­dence from 59 real-time ran­dom­ized ex­per­i­ments.”

But the spend­ing spree will con­tinue no mat­ter how dis­mal the re­sults.

As long as in­cum­bents and chal­lengers are trapped in an end­less cy­cle of fundrais­ing and me­dia buys, politi­cians can make their war chests work won­ders for democ­racy by plac­ing ads in their lo­cal news­pa­per.

More than a quar­ter of U.S. news­pa­pers op­er­at­ing in 2005 have closed their doors, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of North Carolina pro­fes­sor Pene­lope Muse Aber­nathy’s re­search. Cra­ter­ing ad rev­enues caused by the de­cline of brick-and-mor­tar re­tail and the rise of pro­gram­matic dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing have starved about 2,100 pa­pers out of ex­is­tence.

Clo­sures and lay­offs slashed the num­ber of news­room em­ploy­ees from 71,000 in 2008 to 35,000 last year, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search Cen­ter fig­ures. The pan­demic is caus­ing fur­ther car­nage as busi­nesses or­dered to shut or op­er­ate at re­duced ca­pac­ity have ze­roed out their ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets.

COVID-19 could be “an ex­tinc­tion-level event” for lo­cal news­pa­pers, Aber­nathy warns. An in­fu­sion of cam­paign ad­ver­tis­ing may be enough to keep some afloat.

Com­mu­ni­ties that be­come news deserts lose the kind of watch­dog jour­nal­ism that em­pow­ers cit­i­zens to hold their elected of­fi­cials ac­count­able. Af­ter news­pa­pers close, taxes and fees tend to in­crease and gov­ern­ment bor­row­ing costs go up, Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago and Univer­sity of Notre Dame re­searchers found in a July 2018 study.

Your fed­eral, state and lo­cal law­mak­ers ought to care whether their con­stituents have a news­pa­per that cov­ers city coun­cil and school board meet­ings and ex­plains how pro­posed new laws would af­fect them.

It isn’t a co­in­ci­dence that ev­ery glad­hand­ing politi­cian worth his or her salt has a con­tact at the lo­cal pa­per — no one cov­ers cam­paigns and elec­tions bet­ter. A re­gional TV sta­tion may of­fer a 30-sec­ond sound bite, but the town news­pa­per hosts can­di­date fo­rums, pub­lishes de­tailed sto­ries about each con­test, prints sam­ple bal­lots and might even send a re­porter to the cam­paign’s rub­ber-chicken din­ner.

De­spite the nat­u­ral al­liance be­tween public ser­vants and lo­cal news out­lets, too many can­di­dates let con­sul­tants con­vince them print is dead and what they re­ally need is an­other shouty TV com­mer­cial or a glossy mailer com­par­ing their op­po­nent to Hitler. There’s noth­ing wrong with di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, of course, but over­look­ing news­pa­pers’ print edi­tions and web­sites is a tac­ti­cal mis­take.

News­pa­pers also serve the au­di­ence can­di­dates need to reach. Seven out of10 fre­quent vot­ers say they read lo­cal news in print or on­line, and 77% make cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions.

Most im­por­tantly, can­di­dates will be com­mu­ni­cat­ing their sup­port for jour­nal­ists’ work in a tan­gi­ble way. That ought to be worth some good­will.

Corey Fried­man is an opin­ion

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