The high public cost of decline of local newspapers
The journalism world has been “buzzing” recently about an old, depressing story line. A new wave of cutbacks and job losses have hit the nation’s newsrooms – only this time it’s not just traditional print outlets that are being hit hard. Now the ax also is falling at digital outlets, such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. Which is a bit of a “man bites dog” story, since digital journalism has been touted for years as the savior of newspapers.
The truth is at some national news outlets, digital is paving the way to a sustainable future. The New York Times last week posted some very impressive gains in digital subscriptions. But it’s no secret that print newspapers have seen a dramatic decline in readership and revenue that has in recent years been most pronounced at smaller papers.
The loss of reporters, photographers and editors have correspondingly led to diminished news coverage.
So? you might ask. Tsk, Tsk. But the problem has a greater readout: The shrinking of news coverage is levying a mounting cost to civic discourse and community engagement.
Start with this: The steady loss of local newspapers and journalists is contributing to the increasing political polarization in America.
A recent study published in the Journal of Communication reported that as citizens have fewer opportunities to read news coverage of local politicians and government officials they’re more likely to turn to sources such as social media or cable TV news for information. As people turn to these increasingly polarized sources, they often apply these opinions to local city council candidates and state legislators, according to the research.
This carries over to fewer voters casting ballots for candidates of different parties. In 1992, 37 percent of states with Senate races elected a senator from a different party than the presidential candidate favored in the state. In 2016, for the first time in a century, no state did that, the study found.
Diminished news coverage also can change voting patterns. Voting behavior, the study found, becomes much more polarized in a community where a newspaper has been lost. Researchers reached that conclusion by comparing voting data from 66 communities where newspapers have closed in the past two decades to 77 areas where local papers continue to operate.
This is not just about Trumpistas or the Trump Resistance.
Yes, that is important. But there are lots of outlets to get national coverage. There is not nearly as many at the local level.
Here in Delaware County, no doubt the local GOP is still reeling from stinging setbacks at the polls, where several incumbents lost state House and Senate races. Looming not far off are crucial elections for seats on County Council, the county bench and district attorney’s offices. We plan to cover all these key races.
Not every town has that luxury. The news industry has seen some 1,800 newspapers shut down since 2004 — the majority community weeklies. About 7,100 newspapers remain in the U.S. But many larger daily newspapers have remained open with much smaller news staffs, and community coverage has been in many cases constrained.
According to the Pew Research Center, local newspaper circulation has declined by 27 percent over the last 15 years, while the number of statehouse reporters has fallen by nearly 40 percent.
There’s also a link to increased government spending in communities where “watchdog” journalists have disappeared. In another study of the impacts of the decline of newspapers, researchers from the universities of Illinois at Chicago and Notre Dame examined the relationship between public finance and newspaper closures. They found that municipal borrowing costs increased by as much as a tenth of a percent after a newspaper shuttered, even when accounting for declining economic conditions. For the local governments included in the study, that translated to millions more in additional costs between 1996 and 2015.
It’s pretty simple. One of the bedrock missions of the fourth estate has been that “watchdog” role, keeping tabs on government spending. How much do they take in? How much do they spend? And who gets those lucrative contracts. Take away those prying eyes, and the public’s business suddenly is no longer being conducted in public. And the temptation for shenanigans - with the public’s pocketbook - becomes that much greater.
The reason for these changes, the researchers said, was that the loss of a local newspaper meant a loss of local news coverage unlikely to be filled by the national news media, which needs to appeal to a much broader audience, or online outlets. According to the study, this means costs go up because “potential lenders have greater difficulty evaluating the quality of public projects and the government officials in charge of these projects.”
The extra costs aren’t limited to financing. The study also found a correlation between newspaper closures and higher government wages and tax dollars per capita.
Or put another way, who is going to cover school boards, your township or borough ruling body, county council and the impact of local taxes? Here’s a clue: it won’t be social media or cable TV talking heads.