When Local Newspapers Fail

Last weekend, I was doing some research in preparation for my upcoming Media and Public Policy classes, when we would explore the role played by local newspapers in local elections.

The discussion in my class revolved around the upcoming elections in Indianapolis, where citizens will vote for the Mayor and members of the City-County Council. It has been my strong impression that the Indianapolis Star–the sole (barely) surviving daily newspaper–has given short shrift to the campaigns, and I confirmed that impression by scrolling through the archives.

My admittedly cursory review of the coverage of the last year or so also reinforced the extent to which the paper has neglected coverage of the operations of local government.  It isn’t just the electoral “horse races,” which no longer command the column inches they once did; there is virtually no information about the public policies being pursued by the Council or the administration; no coverage of local school board activities–not even articles about the occasional heated zoning battles and fights over sign ordinances that work their way up to the Metropolitan Plan Commission.

Between the annoying and intrusive advertisements that now clutter the local news section, and the even more annoying pop-up ads in its electronic version, the Star tells its declining number of subscribers  about sports, concerts and new bar and restaurant openings –and not much else.

I firmly believe that civic engagement and local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out.

I’ve previously mentioned studies of cities that have lost their newspapers; that loss has been followed by diminished civic and political activity, and higher costs of borrowing (those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.)

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

The article argues that “the loss of professional expertise in coverage of local government has negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.”

The data show that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing had, on average, significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races. We also find suggestive evidence that lower staffing levels are associated with lower voter turnout.

Another recent study found newspaper closures linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go. That has certainly been the case here.

When I taught this class four or five years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?”

The lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.

 

21 thoughts on “When Local Newspapers Fail

  1. And… They are not educating the people about the disaster(s) going on in DC.
    It is as if the Trump mess did not even exist. How can they DO that?

  2. As a newspaperman of 50+ years background (who owns a small newspaper), I am thrilled to be living in Portland, Maine, as thus far we have esceped a lot of the big corporate newspaper slow death by attrition I hear of and see from friends in Indianapolis, Louisville and elsewhere. While we did have a newspaper in Biddeford close recently, the sad fact is the town has 40,000 residents and at the end they had 2,000 subscribers to the daily paper. Even the mayor and all council members had to confess to a reporter that they were not subscribers. I am lucky as I can get a number of dailies delivered (and I get 3 every morning) but the best part is all are different owners, thus differing viewpoints, and different staffs. Proudly all three (Boston Globe, Bangor Daily News and my local Portland Press Herald) all still have features from book and travel pages to magazines (the Globe’s is LOCAL not Parade) and great coverage of political meetings and issues. It’s sad what much of the country has become!

  3. It costs money to do the job newspapers used to do (and this before competition from the internet and other sources), and since, like Kroger’s, newspapers deal in commodities (though of a different sort), it comes down to whether such enterprises are profitable or not, and if not, we are asked to subscribe to, basically, pamphlets. With the exception of some large newspapers who have substantial digital income, I see no relief from either the downward spiral of “papers” as we used to know them (and their content). The idea of public service as watchdogs for the public has morphed into pamphlets for coupons and soccer scores, which does little to illuminate us in re Trump’s latest atrocities or the bonding rate for sewer projects.

  4. “…there is virtually no information about the public policies being pursued by the Council or the administration; …”

    When I was exchanging E-mails with my City Councilor, David Ray, District 19, regarding generally declining conditions in my area, his responses were regarding his many responsibilities as a Councilor. I researched the issues, policies and numerous responsibilities listed for the City-County Council; they appear to be responsible for the final decision on local administrative issues and public policies, not unlike Congress at the federal level. Currently; we have a Democratic Mayor and Democratic majority in the Council but “things” are still not getting done except in higher income areas. This is not made public in the media or the pitiful remains of the Indianapolis Star; I do receive E-mails from Mayor Hogsett and DPW regarding work being done or to be done primarily in those higher income areas.

    While the Indianapolis Star and the long-gone Indianapolis News were owned by the same family; we did receive more information if we subscribed to both newspapers. Which brings us back to the issue of higher income provider of local and national news. The Star sold out to Gannett, Inc.; when I canceled my subscription last December 1st after many decades, it was again on the auction block. No idea what the ownership status is at this time but it is currently the anchor for Circle Centre Mall; when the Star dies, and it WILL die, what happens to the Mall and what happens to downtown Indianapolis?

    Locally; our failing newspaper, the only game in town, is also a sustaining factor for downtown Indianapolis. Is this the case in other cities? Are there any major cities with locally owned daily newspapers of substance or have corporations taken over control of our printed news sources? There is so much more than politics, sports and crime to be reported on issues which effect all of us who live in these cities and the rural areas surrounding them. I miss my daily newspaper but NOT the Indianapolis Star and the constantly rising monthly cost was prohibitive. Strike Three!

  5. It’s a dead business model, and those who want a paper are literally dying off. Someone will have to come up with a new business model to replace it, or propagandists will fill the void. The GOP benefits.

  6. When Gannett bought the Star, the end was in sight. The paper was “jazzed up” to the point that it came to resemble USA Today. There were times when I had to look twice to determine if something on a page was a story or an advertisement. I saw less local news and more syndicated stuff, because the paper fired a number of reporters. I guess using USA Today stories let the Star help subsidize that paper. Where I live now, in the Florida Panhandle, the local paper belongs to the Gatehouse syndicate. We get local news, but nearly every day, the editorial is not locally written. It comes from one of the other Gatehouse papers. I assume that that allows the company to have a smaller staff.

  7. The only people who read newspapers are old fogies like me, so it’s no surprise that they are dying. I thank God every day for my on-line subscription to the Washington Post.

  8. The ONLY reason I now have a subscription to the Indy Star is comic page. Almost the only original reporting is about Carmel and I assume it must be because they must still have one paid reporter and they live in that suburb. I now get most of my local news from the weekly Indianapolis Business Journal, but it still does not get me the depth of the political and policy information I used to get as little as 15 years ago from the Star. Also, IBJ only covers what is happening in the state house if it effects local business.

    There are so many people that don’t understand the value of vetted and fact checked news even if there is some editorial slant. The things that grabs the media dollar today are what I call “Newsertainment”. It is almost alway a human interest sob story, with no real content what so ever.

    Shelia, thanks for giving me some real content to read every day.

  9. Ted and JoAnn, Bravo!

    I remember, when I 1st started reading newspapers, I was about 10 years old or so. I remember walking to the corner store, my father was an avid reader, to pick up the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. It was probably 3 1/2 inches thick and weighed a couple of pounds, LOL. It literally took all day to look at the treasure trove of information and stories. I still read the Chicago Tribune, I still read the Chicago Sun-Times. The the Trib is more of a right-leaning paper. They also owned WGN and the Chicago Cubs at one time, although not anymore. The Chicago Sun-Times is more of a left-leaning paper, pro union, leaning more towards democratic values.

    Both newspapers are good, they offer differing perspectives and one should read both papers to get an accurate view of what’s going on in the city. I still enjoy sitting down with a cup of coffee after the day has quieted down, grand daughters in school, the dog has been walked, and the house is quiet. After perusing the papers, my wife and I might go get a bite and talk about interesting tidbits that were discovered that day and of course folks we know that might be sick and/or might have died, yikes!

    You can see how much politicians despise, as Sheila says, “watchdogs” because a well-funded newspaper will have the resources to employ the “Muckrakers” to dig through that muck and find the gems everyone needs to be aware of. Practicer’s of grift and graft do not like that beacon of light shined on their nefarious shenanigans. Rachel Maddow constantly tells everyone to subscribe your local papers, and I believe she has made an impact in some areas.

    Too bad so much of the news now days is from social media sources, which, many of the newspapers have tried to apply to themselves with various levels of success. Sadly, any nut with a keyboard can push out every sort of lie in conspiracy as truth, and as long as they have the gift of deception, they spread that deception far and wide. In social media, sad to say, there are mountains of trash one would have to dig through to find any nugget of truth or sanity. The constant din of the attack dogs on the “4th Estate” has taken its toll in a time when people would rather get their information from some unshowered, anonymous, psychotic nincompoop, Q-Anon as an example. People feel that “free is better” and folks are extremely hesitant drop-down 4 Bits (or more) for the truth, so free is better, at the cost of freedom.

    This article Below from the Washington Post, seems like it happened a century ago, too bad so money didn’t pay attention to that beacon of light.

    “””””BERLIN — When a video of two Donald Trump supporters shouting “Lügenpresse” (lying press) started to circulate Sunday, viewers from Germany soon noted its explosive nature. The defamatory word was most frequently used in Nazi Germany. Today, it is a common slogan among those branded as representing the “ugly Germany”: members of xenophobic, right-wing groups. Its use across the Atlantic Ocean at a Trump rally has worried Germans who know about its origins all too well. Both the Nazi regime and the East German government made use of it, turning it into an anti-democracy slogan.”””””
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/10/24/the-ugly-history-of-luegenpresse-a-nazi-slur-shouted-at-a-trump-rally/

  10. I wonder whether our education system has assisted. When I went to school the importance of journalism and the freedom of the press was part of the curriculum, especially civic education. We also used newspapers regularly as classroom resources.

    No more, I am sure…

  11. I need to add one thought to what I wrote earlier, after reading the comments which have come in since, and it’s that a lot of the failed and failing papers are due to community/local lack of support. Best example: Last year, the Portland Press Herald’s Sunday paper (called the Maine Sunday Telegram) announced that due to sponsors not interested in the book pages any longer, theyt were to be ended, unless some support materialized. One way, they mentioned, was more subscribers, electronic or print, and they said if they could get I believe it was 100, they’d continue the book section. It took less than 48 hours for them to get over 300 new subscribers, showing not only local interest, but folks putting their cash out there as well. BUT (a big but!) the Telegram and Press Herald are locally owned by Mainer Reade Brower, who owns all but one of the state’s seven dailies… and that one (Bangor Daily News) is owned by a local Bangor family. Again, local folks, doing local news and getting support from locals. That model does work….

  12. John, I grew up in the South Chicago area. The Trib and Sun Times were great newspapers. The local TV Media and radio were good too. The Media up there did not hesitate to take on Richard J. Daley (Daley the Elder) or other powerful politicians.

    When my wife moved here to Indianapolis in 1976, I was shocked at how bent the Indianapolis Star was to the Right. The Media here in Indianapolis seemed so subservient to those in power.

    The Star became even more pathetic as time went on. Some how even though good reporters on the Star left – the Right Wing was well represented. Today, if you took away all the ads, sports and some “reporting” on a new brewery or restaurant, there is little to read.

    The Cable News (FOX, CNN and MSDNC) with the notable exception of Newsy is truly a waste. Fires are raging across California but FOX, CNN and MSDNC are focused nearly 100% on President Agent Orange.

  13. Every country in the world today has a mixed economy and that means that the government allocates specific markets to either capitalism or socialism. In this country they default (to a fault apparently) to capitalism because it helps balance government budgets by increasing revenues and decreasing government expenses for the goods and services that they provide. (Consider the health care market here where as obvious as it is people just don’t count the dollars leaving their pockets one way or another for health insurance but abhor paying less for the same service to government. Health insurance companies have had no trouble using advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing to create that culture.)

    Journalism for a couple of centuries survived by monetizing local news successfully but eventually we became overwhelmed by the advertising that they used to survive on. They payed for reporting local news by diluting it in their product with advertising which eventually sold us on the idea that knowing about the stuff being promoted was worth a lot when alternative sources came around and the journalism that they paid for not so much when we had to pay for it rather than the advertisers paying for it. Now we are paying for not paying for the journalism and we are also paying for our daily addiction to advertising.

    What’s the solution to our love/hate relationship with profit?

    Economists seem to know that to survive capitalism needs socialism, government to:

    1. Use only in markets amenable to effective competition.

    2. Regulation to protect customers, workers, the environment, natural resources, the public, the government, supply chain partners, investors.

    3. Cost natural resources for long term sustainable value.

    4. Progressive wealth taxes to distribute back to wealth creators excess wealth redistributed up to wealth investors.

    5. Globally govern global corporations.

    Some politicians understand and are willing to do these things and some are not. Some citizens understand and are willing to vote in politicians willing to do these things and some are not.

    If we fix the people the politicians will surely follow.

    Fixing the people (culture) is really hard.

  14. THANK YOU, SHEILA !!!!
    In 2016 I picked up subscriptions to The Washington Post and New York Times for their investigative reporting and national issues news
    I still read The Minneapolis Star Tribune (owned by McLatchy) and The St. Paul Pioneer Press (owned by MediaNews Group). Both of these are still good to excellent local news papers with local and state coverage. They started developing their digital operations in the early 2000’s but still have strong physical paper deliveries.
    The Twin Cities (and most of Minnesota) are a strong reading public and centers of progressive activism.
    THIS makes a difference I think!
    I also read papers from other cities around the country – they are out there!
    I recently picked up an IndyStar digital subscription ( at $69 vs. $52 for the NYT and $99 for WaPo).
    Compared to the NYT and WaPo I get NOTHING.
    Compared to other papers I read digitally, the IndyStar is the most difficult to read and navigate.
    I write letters to the editorial staff at IndyStar about coverage and NEVER receive a response.
    I write letters for publication and never see them published.
    Do they ever ask themselves WHO they are serving?
    I worry A LOT about the loss of a local newspaper.
    Is there no individual or no organization in Indianapolis or Indiana to take over publication of a GOOD digital newspaper with a commitment to local and state government coverage and investigative reporting ??? Because THAT’S what’s desperately needed.

  15. Then, there’s the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, an organization that includes all of the local media, the developers, their attorneys, MIBOR, and others that want to control how this City is run and how tax dollars are allocated. Do you think it is a mere coincidence that there are endless stories promoting in a positive light whatever’s happening at Newfields, the Childrens’ Museum, the Indianapolis 500 track, the Colts and Downtown? Many people I know are disgusted with the commercialization of both, because they have abandoned their missions and have become essentially theme parks. You never hear much about people protesting the complete re-writing of the Zoning Ordinance that happened on the sly, heavily favoring developers, of course, all of the tax abatements, TIF handouts, abuse of the TIF concept, grants or other goodies developers have come to expect in this town, where taxpayer subsidies are expected as a matter of right. How about the overbuilding of all of these cheaply-constructed apartments in and near Broad Ripple that are sitting vacant? How about real coverage on Red Line, including how people feel about loss of parking, narrow lanes that create traffic hazards, dumb bus stations stuck in the middle of the street, and declining ridership, even though it’s free? Then there’s the incident in which a Red Line driver got off the bus, walked away, went to a fast-food restaurant and ate a meal, leaving passengers stranded in a locked bus? My neighbors were 2 of the victims of this incident that got no coverage, but now local media are promoting the blue and purple lines without even waiting to see what happens to ridership after November 10th, when it isn’t free any more.

    Local news is an unfunny joke. The Indianapolis Star is part of the GIPC, as are all of the television media. They are nothing but a propaganda instrument for the GIPC, so I don’t waste my time with them.

  16. Natacha, authoritarian/conservatives hate progress (change) as it threatens the status quo that entitled them. Naming a committee that supports them and includes “progress” is an advertising delusion.

  17. And then there is the evening network news, which used to feature mostly news, but now tells us about the cute antics of dogs and how 9-year kids inspire America by dancing around the Maypole despite a handicap. On the rarest of occasions, they will mention an international story – like the Hong Kong riots – even though they may not directly affect us. Cronkite and Murrow and Huntly -Brinkley they aren’t, but those were newsmen, not salesmen. Had most Americans ever heard of the Ukraine before Trump’s self-incriminating phone call? The dumbing down of America, the most successful program in Republican Party history, devolved into puerile tweets, not hard news. Perhaps that explains why Trump, who needed no assistance in dumbing down, is a Twitter fanatic.

  18. Natcha,

    I often do not disagree with your overall points. But more often than not the logic you incorporate to reach those points is beyond flawed.

    Working in the development community, I can tell you that this Zoning Ordinance is not overly friendly to developers. In fact, I would love for you to detail why you believe this.

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