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When No News Isn't Good News: What the Decline of Newspapers Means for Government

About one in five Americans now lack regular access to local media coverage. Studies show this is bad for politics, municipal debt -- and even the environment.

Hundreds of newspaper vending machines sit in a vacant lot near the former offices of the Alaska Dispatch News.
(AP/Mark Thiessen)
Last month, after years of layoffs, the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced it was cutting even more jobs. A newspaper that had a unionized staff of 340 at the dawn of the century will drop down to 33.

What happened at the Plain Dealer isn't unusual.

Around the country, major regional newspapers -- including the Charlotte Observer, The Wichita Eagle, The Denver Post and The San Jose Mercury News -- have shed 80 to 90 percent of their reporting and editing staffs. Between 2008 and 2017, newsroom employment dropped by 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Already this year, more than 2,000 media jobs have been lost.

That’s bad news for journalists. It’s also bad for politics, government -- and even the environment.

Recent academic studies show that newspaper closures and declining coverage of state and local government in general have led to more partisan polarization, fewer candidates running for office, higher municipal borrowing costs and increased pollution.

“Inarguably, no matter what side of the political fence you sit, [in the absence of] a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things,” said Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive and current director of corporate affairs for Dollar Bank in Cleveland, in response to the most recent Plain Dealer layoffs. “Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”

Most people don’t seem to notice that the news business is struggiling. A Pew study released last month found that 71 percent of Americans believe their local news outlets are doing “very” or “somewhat” well financially.

That’s hardly the case.

Since 2004, some 1,800 newspapers have closed entirely, according to the University of North Carolina. That means one out of five Americans live in a “news desert” with little to no access to reliable local media coverage.

In many other places, newspapers are “ghosts” of their former selves, says Penelope Muse Abernathy, author of the UNC study. Nearly half the counties in the U.S. have only one newspaper.

“While we tend to focus on the big newspapers like The New York Times, the majority of newspapers have circulations under 15,000, and they were weeklies,” Abernathy says.

The internet and social media have exacerbated these trends. More and more people are relying on tweets and headlines for their news. National outlets are crowding out local coverage. 

“By removing geographic barriers to distribution, we’ve created an environment that’s even more hostile to community-level journalism,” says Phil Napoli, a public policy professor at Duke University.

Compounding these problems is the fact that a majority of Americans, including nine out of 10 Republicans, have lost trust in media, according to a 2018 survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation. Having a president who criticizes traditional news outlets, calling them "fake news," doesn't help.

“Our trusty watchdog, the press, has been kicked to the curb, starving, neglected and all too often abused,” said Kathy Kiely, a veteran Washington reporter now teaching at the University of Missouri. “If newsrooms are unhealthy, so is the democracy they serve.”  


More Polarization, Fewer Candidates

Reporters not only expose government corruption and problems, they act as sort of scarecrows.

“The very presence of a reporter in a city council meeting can discipline behavior,” says Napoli. “That’s harder to measure.”

It’s clear, though, that there are fewer reporters covering city halls. Last year, a study coauthored by Napoli found that over the course of a week in 100 randomly selected communities, one out of five places had no local news at all.

Consider some of the effects.

According to a study published in November in the Journal of Communicationvoters rely more on national outlets -- and become more partisan -- as local newspapers decline or close.

“The more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government,” says Johanna Dunaway, professor of communications at Texas A&M University and coauthor of the study.

Split-ticket voting is in steep decline. As recently as 1972, nearly half the congressional districts in the country (44 percent) split their votes between a party’s presidential candidate and its Senate or congressional candidates. That’s dropped to less than 5 percent.

Even though the news business has declined, the appetite for news has not, says Matt Carlson, a journalism studies professor at the University of Minnesota. A lot of that interest has migrated to social media.

“People find things in different ways, and a lot of it’s geared toward national context,” he says.

The nationalization of news may be impacting not just how people vote but how many people vote or run for office.

According to a study published this month in Urban Affairs Review, cities with steep declines in newsroom staff had less competition in mayoral races. Fewer people bothered to run. And the authors found some evidence that people were less inclined to vote.

Other studies have found more blows to civic health when newspapers close -- from declining citizen engagement to increased corruption and declining government performance. Last year, a Brookings Institution paper found that municipal borrowing costs rose by 5 to 11 basis points (or about a 20th to a 10th of a percent), costing the average local government an additional $650,000 per bond issue.

“This effect is causal and not driven by underlying economic conditions,” the authors claim.


Environmental Effects

Lack of local news can also be hazardous to your health.

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management found that levels of toxic emissions spewed by local plants were reduced by 29 percent when they were covered by local newspapers.

Not only do corporate polluters face less potential exposure and embarrassment, but there's less scrutiny -- or even notice -- of regulatory decisions. In April, the state of Alaska rolled back six-month-old regulations regarding a class of chemicals known as PFAS that leach into the water supply and are associated with cancer and other harmful effects. Due to a dearth of Alaska media coverage, residents hardly know that.

“No one is paying attention to environmental rules,” says Dermot Cole, a blogger and former longtime columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “At one time, the Anchorage Daily News would have been on top of this story, but its staff might be one-fifth what it was. The watchdog function has not been replaced by anything.” 


The Future of News

Owners and publishers willing to plan for the long term will be able to ride out the journalism industry’s ongoing transition from print to digital, says Abernathy, the UNC professor. But there are many communities that lack the economic base, she says, to support anything like the amount of state and local government coverage that was available a generation ago.

Newspapers that can draw national audiences -- The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- have a big enough base to support healthy and in fact increasing digital subscriptions. A paper covering East Podunk can't draw from such a wide pool. 

There are declines in coverage at all levels of government. Roughly half the states lack any newspaper with a full-time reporter covering Washington. The number of full-time statehouse reporters dropped by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. 

Someone might be tweeting from the city council chambers, but far fewer people are being paid to ferret out and synthesize enough information to give citizens in many communities solid, ongoing information about what their government is up to.

“We have no idea of what goes on in determining where our taxes go and what things are regulated,” says Carlson, the Minnesota professor. “You need people watching what you’re doing. It’s as simple as that. But that’s really, really expensive, especially in a local market.”

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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