As Newspapers Shrink, Public Officials Worry

Recent cutbacks in daily print schedules will leave communities less informed.

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In May, four metropolitan newspapers announced cut backs in their daily print schedule to just three days a week. Citizens in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, Ala., and, most notably, New Orleans, will have to seek other sources for their news when the presses aren’t running. Executives of the four dailies claimed their online websites would pick up the slack, but shortly after announcing the reduction in print runs, they made significant layoffs of reporters and editors along with pressmen and advertising employees.

While newspapers have been cutting back on staff ever since the Internet began pulling readers and advertisers away from print, the combination of fewer reporters and less print frequency worries not just media advocates, but also public officials. In a recent survey of senior state and local executives conducted by Governing, more than 50 percent think government coverage in newspapers is already inconsistent or weak. Barely 16 percent rated coverage as aggressive. Another 27 percent rated coverage as adequate.

Rather than appearing as an isolated incident in newspaper publishing, the shift towards fewer press runs could be gathering steam. In April, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a survey report of 38 news executives that found most predicted more daily newspapers would print less frequently in the next 5 years, with some cutting back to just once a week.

Such a trend concerns public officials. Governing
found that more than two-thirds of those polled by  its online community Governing Exchange think the cutbacks will either have some or a significant negative impact on how their community stays informed. Nearly 24 percent expect little impact, with digital coverage, online bloggers and TV news picking up the slack.

Today, almost three-quarters of all adults (72 percent) follow local news closely and depend on newspapers as the source they rely on, according to Pew.  When asked what the alternatives are to a daily newspaper, public officials are less clear. Nearly 42 percent of government executives believe the public sector should step in by publishing electronic newsletters, using social media and holding live and virtual forums to keep communities informed about government services and news.

But more than 37 percent of the respondents said government should not take an active role, and instead let the market develop new and supposedly profitable ways to sell news and information to citizens. Another 13 percent believe bloggers and citizen journalists will fill the void.

A big concern is how the cutbacks could affect the role of newspapers as government’s watchdog. Louisiana was ranked by Governing
as the most corrupt state in the country, based on the number of public corruption convictions. Alabama was ranked eighth. If two states needed more reporters and pages of newsprint, not fewer, they would be Louisiana and Alabama.

When it comes to solutions, however, public officials are split on whether government should take a more active role in keeping citizens informed, or leave it up to media markets to develop a sustainable way to deliver the news. The lasting impact on government is still unknown, but one thing is certain: The tradition of printing news on paper is changing in a big way.

The survey was conducted June 14-18 among a sample of 123 senior government officials and administrators. Survey participants were randomly selected to receive email invitations to complete the survey online. The results have a maximum sampling error of +/- 8.8 percentage points at 95 percent confidence.