When local media shuts down, communities rely more on "national" media - which polarises their political identities


An interesting hypothesis shared by the Neiman Lab, a think tank focused on the US press. In short:

In places that lose a newspaper, split-ticket voting [where you vote differently locally than nationally] decreases by almost 2 percent. Without trustworthy political information, we fall back on party labels and our partisan identities. Local newspapers provide a valuable service to democracy by keeping readers’ focus on their communities.

When they lose local newspapers, we have found, readers turn to their political partisanship to inform their political choices.

If Americans can tear themselves away from the spectacle in Washington and support local news with their dollars and attention, it could help to push back against the partisan polarization that has taken over American politics today.

But how did the Lab come to its conclusions (full paper here)?

The majority of closed newspapers in our study were weeklies, such as the tiny Clarke Courier of Virginia or the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, though our data also included some major metropolitan dailies, such as Denver’s Rocky Mountain News

We found that the decline of local newspapers and the “nationalization” of political news are polarizing vote choice: Voters were 1.9 percent more likely to vote for the same party for president and senator after a newspaper closes in their community, compared to voters in statistically similar areas where a newspaper did not close.

While 1.9 percent may not seem like a lot, it’s often enough to win an election. For example, in 2018, the U.S. House races in Minnesota’s 1st district, Utah’s 4th district, and Illinois’s 13th district were all decided by less than that margin.

Another American report, from the City Lab site, show that when local newsrooms shrink, fewer candidates run for Mayor. The context of the reduction of investment in journalism is important:

When news-gathering resources are whittled down, papers struggle to adjust. Older, better-paid journalists are often laid off first, forcing newspapers to also lose longstanding source connections and institutional memory. As journalists take on extra beats and reporting time is stretched, city council meetings go uncovered, budgets unanalyzed, and legislation unchallenged. And when coverage declines, reader trust and interest also erodes, according to a recent Pew study. Eventually, this can catalyze a cycle of disinvestment in local news, which can in turn allow corruption to proliferate and government costs to soar, one recent report found.

But the City Lab researches - in a group of Californian papers - found an actual correlation. That is, between the reduced number of newsroom staff in a paper covering local issues, and a smaller number of candidates coming forward for the Mayoralty.

If a newspaper hired one more staffer for each 1,000-person circulation (or 10 staffers for a paper with a circulation of 10,000), the number of candidates would “increase by an expected factor of 1.23, all else held constant….It’s generally the difference between having an [mayoral] option or not,” said Rubado.

By measuring the victory margins for successful mayoral candidates, they again found a correlation between tight races and healthier newspapers: When more journalists worked at the local paper, mayoral candidates won with a smaller percentage of the votes. It was also less likely for an incumbent mayor to run for reelection unchallenged.

It would be very interesting to test this result in a UK context - whose local media, and local reporting, is in as much financial crisis as the US’s. (And if this has indeed been done in the UK, we’d like to know about it - please use comments box below.)

The recent Cairncross report on the future of the UK media argued strongly that public funds should be made available to public-interest and particularly local media:

Cairncross said that job losses at local newspapers meant there was a crisis in the coverage of democracy. “The cost of investigative journalism is great and rarely seems to pay for itself … given the evidence of a market failure in the supply of public-interest news, public intervention may be the only remedy.”

She added that there was no clear way to provide profitable coverage of a local council meeting, since such stories tend to attract few clicks on the internet. “Ultimately, the biggest challenge facing the sustainability of high-quality journalism, and the press, may be the same as that which is affecting many areas of life: the digital revolution means that people have more claims on their attention than ever before.

“Moreover, the stories people want to read may not always be the ones that they ought to read in order to ensure that a democracy can hold its public servants properly to account.”

Many questions to be asked about how these public resources would be delivered. Would it be a grant to newspaper operations which have already cut and slashed their business? Or to new kinds of non-profit operations that started from scratch digitally, more tightly connected with the agendas and needs of citizens?

Or is there even a bigger consideration, as the American studies suggest: that a thriving and comprehensive local media - perhaps framing their editorial on an “I - We - World” basis - could be one way to reduce the polarisations of our everyday political lives at the moment?