How the Decline of Local News Threatens Local Democracy

As newsrooms shut down across the country, good governance takes a hit and partisanship worsens. It's more important than ever to find ways to preserve local journalism.

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July 1 marked the final issue of Connecticut's Middletown Press & Journal. Publishers Joe and Louise Sukle cited increasingly difficult business conditions their difficult decision to close. (CHRIS KNIGHT, The Patriot-News)
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This summer, the Capital Gazette, the Annapolis, Md., newspaper founded in 1727 that was among the first publishers of the Declaration of Independence, became a newspaper without a newsroom. Parent company Tribune Publishing's cost-cutting in the wake of COVID-19 permanently shuttered offices that had reopened barely a year after a gunman opened fire there, killing five staffers; even a resulting Pulitzer Prize couldn't keep the lights on. The Capital Gazette joined five other Tribune outlets in closing their offices at least temporarily, sending their employees to work from home.

Other papers have suffered even worse fates. Over the past 15 years across America, some 2,100 of them have closed down for good. The majority of counties are now served at most by a single newspaper, and many surviving outlets are little more than "ghost papers." Meanwhile, one in five newsroom employees live in New York, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., reflecting a troubling nationalization and consolidation of news. And it's not only print: Just five companies now own nearly 40 percent of broadcast TV stations nationwide.

No one has come up with a perfect solution for the preservation of independent local news in some form, but the need is more urgent than ever. A slow-moving financial crisis in journalism is now gaining speed with today's pandemic-fueled recession, and the costs are mounting, not just to local news but to local democracy. Recent studies suggest that nearly any measure of governance is negatively affected by the decline of local journalism.

Take public safety, for instance. It turns out that decreasing TV news coverage of local wrongdoing leads to a meaningful decline in clearance rates for violent crimes. After Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased 14 local television stations, researchers found a 25 percent drop in local coverage, which mainly impacted the violent-crime beat. Less crime in the news gave it less prominence in public opinion, which in turn induced police officers to "decrease the effort allocated to clearing violent crimes," according to the study. The greatest drops in clearance rates were found in older communities, where residents are not only avid news consumers but a key political interest group.

Public finances also take a hit when local news coverage drops. In the three years following a newspaper's exit, the cost of government goes up: taxes, payrolls, average wages, deficits and borrowing costs all rise, especially in states already suffering from poor governance. The pricing of municipal bonds, which help pay for things like roads and schools, is a clue to the positive influence of local news, since more information and better monitoring should lower the risk of default. But with fewer newspapers around, rising borrowing costs have added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a typical issuance.

And in an election year, let's not forget partisan politics. That, too, worsens when local news dries up. Split-ticket voting for federal offices, such as when a voter supports one party for president and another for the Senate, declines after a local newspaper closes, an effect that's even more pronounced at the state and local levels as party identification substitutes for news in the voting booth. The consequences grow from there: Less information and more partisan noise also mean fewer people willing to run for office and less engagement by citizens in elections, while also removing incentives for politicians to work as hard for their constituents.

It's important to recognize here that local news demand is not dead — if anything, it's been increasing during the pandemic. But ad dollars are still falling faster than subscriber revenue can grow, a pre-pandemic trend that's only accelerated in recent months, leading to layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts for some 36,000 news staffers across more than 200 newsrooms nationwide. This comes at a time when local information is vital to responding to a public health crisis, and when its substitutes may be doing more harm than good. One recent study, for example, found than an increase in Fox News viewership led to a marked reduction in social distancing during the height of the pandemic.

Local journalism as we know it is simply not competitive in the absence of profit, but other models show some promise. A nonprofit model like that adopted by The Salt Lake Tribune or The Texas Tribune, relying on charitable donations and memberships much like public television, may not only be the most tenable option but also one that aligns the incentives of donor and publisher behind local news as a public good. Supporting local news as a form of civic engagement also doubles down on the citizen action that makes local journalism useful for good governance.

Other ideas abound. Partnering across platforms and even with competitors may help spread the costs of news coverage. And the email newsletter model is giving new reach to star local reporters like Shay Castle in Boulder, Colo., and Adam Wren in Indiana. There's even a bipartisan bill in Congress proposing tax credits to support local news, though such a radical form of public subsidy risks undermining the watchdog role of journalism.

There may be no single cure for America's newsrooms, but one thing is clear: Local journalism is facing near extinction, and with it the quality of local governance necessary to sustain a healthy American project. No local news is bad news.

Director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. He can be reached at mhendrix@manhattan-institute.org or on Twitter at @michael_hendrix.
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