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June 20, 2018

How we know journalism is good for democracy

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According to new data, at least 900 communities across the United States have faced profound erosion in their access to local news and information since 2004. Writing about the data in Poynter recently, Tom Stites argued that “News deserts are ominous to democracy.” That warning rings true, and is often repeated by others, but what does that mean in practice and how do we know?

The idea that the health of our democracy is contingent on the health of journalism inspires our work here at Democracy Fund, and has animated ideas about people’s access to information in America since its earliest days. In 1822, James Madison wrote to the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky to applaud the state’s support for a new system of general education. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both,” wrote Madison. “And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Today, even as access to information expands globally, communities across the United States face growing gaps in their access to meaningful local news and information about their neighborhoods. There is an increasing body of evidence that provides data and details about what these gaps could mean for civic engagement, good government, and the health of local communities.

Below we have compiled links to academic studies and articles that help quantify what happens when local communities lose local news.These studies are important to helping communities understand the democratic role of the press, fostering new solutions to meet community information needs, and for making the case as to why local news needs to be a priority for philanthropy.

(Ed. Note: This post has been edited on October 14, 2019, to add new research to the list below. We will continue to update it and update the date in this note whenever we do.)

Erosion in Local News is Tied to Drops in Civic Engagement

Numerous studies have explored the impact of local news coverage on core qualities of a healthy democracy such as people’s political knowledge, voting rates and number of people running for office. While there are nuances between them, the studies are fairly unanimous in finding that erosions in local news are tied to drops in civic engagement.

  • Lee Shaker studied what happened to civic engagement in Denver and Seattle the year the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed. Shaker found a “significant” drop in civic engagement in those two places as compared to cities which didn’t lose a local paper.
  • In 2009, Matthew Gentzkow testified to the Federal Trade Commission that the act of reading a newspaper can mobilize as many as 13 percent of non-voters to vote. The statistic comes from a study he did with Jesse M. Shapiro, and Michael Sinkinson which found that “newspapers have a robust positive effect on political participation” nothing in particular that one additional newspaper in a region can boost voter turnout by approximately 0.3 percentage points.
  • Looking at Los Angeles media and voting data, Jackie Filla and Martin Johnson also find a link between low media access and low turnout.
  • When the Cincinnati Post, which served both Ohio and northern Kentucky, shut down Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido observed that “fewer candidates ran for municipal office […] incumbents became more likely to win reelection, and voter turnout and campaign spending fell.” In their paper they argue that newspapers “have a substantial and measurable impact on public life.”
  • Jennifer L. Lawless and Danny Hayes used congressional districts as a lens through which to study political coverage and civic engagement in the month leading up to the 2010 election. Combining an analysis of 6,000 stories and a survey of nearly 50,000 people they found that voters in districts with less campaign coverage had a harder time evaluating candidates and reported they were less likely to vote.
  • Meghan E. Rubado and Jay T. Jennings use a data set including 11 local newspapers in California matched up with the municipalities they cover to study the impact of declines in newsroom staffing. The data covered a 20-year period and the authors found that cities and towns with shrinking newsrooms had “significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races” and lower voter turnout. As Josh Benton notes in his overview of the research, the study is notable because most similar research focuses on newspaper closings, not just shrining staff.
  • In a follow-up paper to the one above Meghan E. Rubado and Jay T. Jennings interviewed working journalists to understand the impact of newspaper employment cuts on the communities they cover. The researchers summarize their findings noting that “Interviews show that staffing cuts and a shift to online publishing have dramatically changed the reporting model of local newspapers [prompting] a reduction in press attention to local government activities and […] a more reactive press that is less able to set the agenda in communities.” Journalists they talked to described “corruption, mismanagement, lower turnout, and incumbency advantages” as outcomes of reduced government coverage. (We also recommend NiemanLab’s excellent summary of the paper.)

Every Dollar Spent on Local News Produces Hundred of Dollars in Public Benefit

Quality journalism is expensive, but when you explore the economic impact of a robust press it becomes clear that a dwindling fourth estate may be even more costly. From saving lives to exposing corruption, local news produces many forms of public benefit that make our governments work better and our communities more sustainable.

  • A study by James M. Snyder, Jr. and David Strömberg reinforced many of the Lawless and Hayes findings above but goes on to also document how “Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies.” This is evidenced by their voting record, participation in hearings and more. As a result, the authors find that “federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress.”
  • In his book Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, James Hamilton is able to quantify the economic impact of watchdog reporting. By looking at the political and social change that resulted from journalism, and the cost of those stories, Hamilton was able to show that “each dollar spent on stories can generate hundreds of dollars in benefits to society”
  • Paul Gao and Chang Lee reviewed municipal bond data in the years after a newspaper closure to show that “cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals.” WIthout watchdogs cities faced higher long-term borrowing costs that translate to immediate costs for citizens.
  • Exploring this issue across nations Aymo Brunetti and Beatrice Weder found “a significant relationship between more press freedom and less corruption in a large cross-section of countries.” Indeed, the authors suggest that “of the probable controls on bureaucratic corruption a free press is likely to be among the most effective ones.”
  • Pamela Campa, economics professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, recently found that newspaper coverage of polluters and emissions producers was correlated with a 29% reduction the emissions by compared to factories and plants that were not covered. (Other community health implications of erosions in local news are explored below.)
  • In a study of Australian communities Julie Freeman and Brett Hutchins found a negative feedback loop in places where there is poor internet access, limited government transparency and eroding local news capacity. “In areas where declines in local newsrooms and resources inhibit political reporting and scrutiny of government actions,” they write, “there is little impetus for governments to develop interactive digital practices (or to consider and respond to civic input) given that restricting such spaces is arguably an advantage in the maintenance of political power.” Taken together, these forces create “a ruinous triumvirate – ill-informed citizenries, illegitimate local decision making and minimally accountable local governments.”

Local News Creates the Building Blocks for National Reporting and Provides a First Draft of History

As news deserts spread, scholars from fields as diverse as epidemiology to geography are raising the alarm about the risks of losing this critical layer of news and information. Local news is often the first on a story, covering it long before it becomes a national issue, and their reporting serves as the building blocks for historians, communities and national outlets.

  • Helen Branswell wrote recently that “When towns lose their newspapers, disease detectives are left flying blind.” Branswell speaks to a number of epidemiologists about their reliance on local newspapers to identify disease outbreaks, trace their path, and forecast their spread. Her article shows that America’s journalism crisis is also a public health crisis.
  • The Pew Research Center studied how people looked for and found information about the Flint water crisis to help understand “how news spreads in our increasingly fractured information environment.” Their data shows that local media was reporting on the crisis long before national media was paying attention. Local reporting was credited with revealing the bulk of new information.
  • When Gothamist and DNAInfo were shut down suddenly last year, Samuel Stein, a geographer at CUNY Graduate Center, spoke to a number of academics about how vital hyperlocal reporting is to research efforts across an array of disciplines. For researchers, local news really is the first draft of history.

Local News Builds Social Cohesion and Strengthens Community (and Vice Versa)

Local news, done right, helps build community by reflecting the voices, concerns and stories of local people back to each other in ways that build connection and empathy. Traditionally, local news organizations have also served as a key part of the public square where communities debate the issues and ideas facing them.

  • Political polarization among voters increases after local newspapers close down, according to research in the Journal of Communication. The authors write: “A relative reduction of local news in the media marketplace may result in less exposure to local news and more regular exposure to national media, with significant effects on engagement and partisan voting.”
  • Lewis Freidland focuses explicitly on the intersection of communication, community and democracy in his research, and has shown compellingly how communication within place, especially the kind made possible through local media, is critical to producing community.
  • Masahiro Yamamoto has shown that “newspaper reading correlates with respondents’ sense of social cohesion, indicating that community newspapers are important to community engagement.” (Interestingly, Pew found an alternative correlation to also be true. Those who feel “highly attached to their communities demonstrate much stronger ties to local news” than those without a strong local sense of place.)
  • Yong‐Chan Kim and Sandra J. Ball‐Rokeach didn’t look at news organizations specifically but were interested in people’s relationship to various forms of community media, which they called  “integrated connectedness to a storytelling network.” They found that this connection to local storytelling was key to “neighborhood belonging, collective efficacy, and civic participation.”
  • In two separate pieces of research Carrie Buchanan (2009) and Kristy Hess (2012) document various ways local news builds sense of place and connection in geographic communities even when online news becomes somewhat more unmoored from location.

These studies provide an enormous set of rigorous research into the various ways journalism contributes to a healthy democracy. Understanding the impact of quality local news on our democracy in these sorts of specific, data driven, nuanced ways is critical as we think about how to address news deserts, combat misinformation, defend press freedom and foster newsrooms that are more trusted and engaged with their communities. However, these findings also call us to take even more seriously the erosion of people’s access to news and information. The faltering of newspapers, the consolidation of TV and radio, and the rising power of social media platforms are not just commercial issues driven by the market, they are democratic issues with profound implications for our communities.

The research above makes the case for why we must do more to expand support for quality local news that truly reflects and serves its communities. 

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Local Fix newsletter. Thanks to subscribers who sent in additional research and contributed ideas to this post. If you want a weekly dose of ideas and inspiration for local news, subscribe here.) 

Josh Stearns is the Program Director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. A journalist, community builder, and civic strategist, Josh joined the Democracy Fund from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where he served as the Director of Journalism and Sustainability and worked to support and expand community-driven local news. Previously, Josh served as press freedom director at Free Press. He is a nationally recognized leader in public participation and civic innovation and has won numerous awards for digital storytelling and online campaigns. Josh is a founding member of the First Draft Coalition and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.