A first-of-its-kind study was recently published by The Journal of Politics aimed at measuring the decline in local news from 2010 to 2014, and whether that decline has any effect on citizen political engagement. Researchers Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless measured thousands of local news stories, taking note of frequency of stories as well as substance, and found that as local news quality and regularity of publishing have dropped off, so has citizen engagement in politics.
We’ve been lamenting the death of journalism, and to a greater extent, local news, for a while now. Websites like “Newspaper Death Watch” have popped up to monitor which papers are closing and which ones are reducing their frequency or type of content. Since 2007, papers such as the Baltimore Examiner, Cincinnati Post, Albuquerque Tribune, Honolulu Advertiser, and Tampa Tribune have all gone out of business. Newsroom staffs have been reduced by almost 40 percent from 1995 to 2015, and show no signs of slowing their roll.
Hayes and Lawless mention that studies on the decline of news content have been conducted before, but mostly “before the upheaval in the local news business” that’s occurred in the last decade. They also caution against believing the “presumed causal relationship between local news and citizen engagement” too quickly, without sufficient evidence, but point to recent studies that have shown this relationship on a smaller level: for example, a 2011 study cited saw a reduction in voter turnout after the closure of the Cincinnati Post, and a 2014 study saw similar patterns from 2008 to 2009 after the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The researchers’ own prior work pointed to “a correlation between House campaign coverage in the District and residents’ political knowledge and participation.” So the idea that news coverage is linked to citizen engagement is not baseless.
Still, Hayes and Lawless examined two datasets to test their theory. They looked at local newspapers’ coverage of congressional elections (specifically 2010 and 2014) and measured frequency and substance of more than 10,000 articles. They then used the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, over the same period, to measure the participation and reported knowledge of the electorate, with focus on tracking specific individuals’ answers from election to election. The researchers noted that certain variables, such as the competitiveness of a given race, might influence the amount of news coverage––when two candidates are head-to-head, the uncertainty of outcome often drives up coverage (drama sells, after all).
Even accounting for those factors, though, the pattern was clear: In “safe” congressional districts (with less competition), papers published an average of 9.6 stories covering the 2010 congressional elections, and 8.9 covering the 2014 elections. In toss-up or heavily contested districts, papers published 23.5 stories in the 2010 elections and 22.9 in 2014. But perhaps more tellingly, there was a significant decline, about 10 percent, in the number of issue mentions per story from 2010 to 2014, indicating that the substance of these stories is declining at a faster rate.
News consumers should want to hear what the candidates think about important issues––but when that news is less readily available to them, are we really surprised when they turn up to the ballot box less informed than before?
Sensationalist headlines lamenting the death of various industries are par for the course, now. Millennials (and now Gen Z) have allegedly killed big-brand beer, home-ownership, Applebee’s, and a million other institutions we used to think would be around forever. Shackled by debt, and focused on experience over consumption and ownership, it makes sense that many industries are changing to accommodate younger generations and their unique preferences––in the marketplace, businesses should be forced to innovate and adapt as consumer needs change.
But the shift of the local news landscape is perhaps even more worrisome than our growing proclivity for something other than Coors or Budweiser; as this industry dies, so does our in-depth knowledge of what’s going on around us. Larger newspapers, which service vast metropolitan areas, simply don’t have an incentive to cover more local elections that only affect a portion of their readers the way local newspapers used to.
The changing media model has some perks––news is disseminated at low cost, and it floods our social media platforms constantly. There are lower barriers of entry, meaning small independent media operations are able to reach new audiences like never before. But, as the study’s authors warn, “To the extent that the local news environment continues to deteriorate—a likely scenario as the industry continues to struggle—our results are likely harbingers of a longer-term trend.”
Let’s hope this gap in local political coverage can be filled, or else we’ll see severe consequences.
Liz Wolfe (@lizzywol) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is managing editor at Young Voices.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.