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.