The high pub­lic cost of de­cline of lo­cal news­pa­pers

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - OPINION -

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.

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