Losing Local News Impacts Democracy
Editor’s note: This marks the debut of a new monthly column from Mary M. Collins.
Last spring, our suburban Chicago school board election became a bit tense. It’s generally a staid affair in which candidates are vetted by a local caucus. The caucus recommends a slate of three nominees. Those not recommended then decide whether to run as independents or drop out of the race.
One of this year’s independents ran a splashy campaign, which included front page coverage in the free, local glossy magazine. It wasn’t until after the election that I learned his campaign included funding from an out-of-state group that has publicly declared itself “the platform for the alt-right.” The group’s views have been variously characterized as misogynistic, xenophobic and racist.
So, why did it take me so long to learn this? It’s because our weekly community newspaper has changed hands multiple times and is, at best, a shadow of its former self. The publication that used to push local candidates to explain their views and run letters to the editor is now reduced to publishing the police blotter and reprinting stories from its parent publication, a daily Chicago newspaper.
I was reminded of this when I read an article produced by the Yale School of Management. Its headline says it all, “Without a Local Newspaper, Americans Pay Less Attention to Local Politics,” summarizing findings from a paper co-authored by a Yale economics professor.
Interestingly, the research involves the advent of television. In 1948, the FCC, after issuing 108 broadcast television licenses, put the process on hold for four years, the so-called “FCC Freeze.” This gave three academics — from Yale, MIT and Sciences Po Paris — a “very clean natural experiment where some markets were randomly introduced to TV four years earlier than others.”
They hypothesized that the markets with both newspapers and television would either show that television cut into the revenue and circulation of the local papers, or that TV coverage would serve to stimulate more in-depth local stories.
What they found was first consumers and then advertisers moved from print to television, with the effect felt most strongly by evening newspapers. While this didn’t put the papers out of business, it did cut their revenues by 5%-10%. The result was an overall reduction in newspaper coverage and slowed newspaper growth.
The researchers then looked to tie these results to political engagement. They used split-ticket voting as a proxy for engagement theorizing that those engaged would vote for candidates, not parties. What they found was a lower percentage of split-ticket voting in TV markets.
The authors followed up to determine the current fate of the 102 newspapers they’d studied. Only 10 still offered a full format (with issues available online) in 2017. That, says Yale’s Michael Sinkinson, is troubling. He points out that it was a small paper in Harrisburg, Pa., that broke the story about sexual abuse at Penn State. Moreover, “as local news fades, local politics becomes increasingly nationalized — which, other researchers have found, contributes to political polarization.”
This Yale report foreshadows a 2019 report by PEN America — LOSING THE NEWS: The Decimation of Local Journalism and the Search for Solutions. In an 80-page narrative supported by more than 30 pages of notes, the authors conclude that local news is collapsing with multiple negative consequences for our democracy including:
- Citizens are less likely to vote.
- The population is less politically informed.
- People are less likely to run for political office.
- Increased government inefficiency along with corruption and cost increases.
The PEN writers blame the demise of local news on two primary factors. The first is the shift to digital content – they calculate that 77% of digital revenue goes to the “digital duopoly” of Facebook and Google. The second factor is media consolidation in both print and broadcast.
The situation has not improved. Earlier this month, Poynter reported that “more than 90 local newsrooms closed during the coronavirus pandemic.”
What broadcasters need to focus on are the PEN authors’ recommendations. They call for the FCC to reverse its deregulation stance and to consider its “responsibility to promote diversity and to ensure that broadcast news content is serving the public benefit.” In addition, and among other suggestions, they call for “the U.S. Congress to convene a Commission on Public Support for Local News.” They see this as the “spiritual successor to the  Carnegie Commission on Educational Television,” which resulted in the founding of U.S. public broadcasting.
Broadcasters can either wait for Congress to act — hoping that it won’t or find ways to fix the problem. One promising example is that of the recently announced exploratory talks between Chicago Public Media (parent company of Chicago’s NPR affiliate) and the Chicago Sun-Times. If completed, the merger will “create one of the largest local nonprofit news organizations in the nation and be a national model for the future of local journalism.”
That is just one possible solution, and I’m not sure it will lead to better school board coverage in my community. But the point is, there are ways broadcasters can figure this out before the government steps in and dictates the remedy.
Former president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association (MFM) and its BCCA subsidiary, Mary M. Collins is a change agent, entrepreneur, and senior management executive. She can be reached at [email protected].