June 20, 2018
How we know journalism is good for democracy
By Josh Stearns and Christine Schmidt
At Democracy Fund, we see every day how local news strengthens democracy. People rely on local news to figure out who to vote for, how to speak up at school board meetings, how to run for local office, where to find vaccines, when to organize for change, and more. From daily reporting that equips people to act, to huge investigations that reveal corruption, the health of local news is bound up with the health of our democracy.
Unfortunately, communities across the United States are steadily losing access to this kind of civic information. According to data released in June 2022, at least one fifth of the U.S. — 70 million people — live in a community without a newspaper or a community at risk of losing theirs.
Since 2018, we’ve been tracking academic studies that show in stark terms the impact journalism has on our democracy. This research review has become a critical guide for funders, policymakers, communities, and journalists who care about creating a healthier democracy. In 2022, we overhauled this resource, including adding a section that more clearly names the harms journalism has caused in our communities, especially communities of color.
These studies and articles provide an enormous set of rigorous data that help quantify what happens when local communities have strong local news — and what happens when they lose it. 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 build a more equitable and sustainable future of local news that truly serves all communities at a moment of threat and uncertainty in democracy.
Do you have additional research to add, or are interested in how you can be part of the solution? Email us at LocalNewsLab@democracyfund.org.
(Ed. Note: This post was originally published June 26, 2018. It was last revised on September 15, 2022. We will continue to update the date in this note for future additions. Andrea Lorenz, PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media, contributed research and guidance for the update of this post in summer 2022.)
Strong local journalism = more people turning out to vote.
- The amount of local political coverage correlates with increased voter turnout. Researchers in Denmark found that “local news media coverage has a positive effect on voter turnout, but only if the news media provide politically relevant information to the voters and only at local elections.”
- Voters have been more likely to vote in down-ballot races in places with more local newspapers per capita. By comparing data on legislative ballot completion with news circulation data, researchers from St. Olaf College found that even the existence of local newspapers contributes to the likelihood that voters will fill out more of their ballots.
- Local media coverage can increase voter engagement in state Supreme Court elections. David Hughes studied how these races can often be considered “low information elections” because of how little information voters can find about the candidates and stakes of the contest, but media attention can generate and distribute as much information about a race as a well-funded campaign.
- People who consume local news are more likely to vote locally. The authors of a study from Pennsylvania State University examined the habits of people who consume local and national media, on both traditional and digital platforms, and found both types of news consumption are positive predictors of voting at both levels.
- The act of reading a newspaper can mobilize as many as 13 percent of non-voters to vote, Matthew Gentzkow testified to the Federal Trade Commission in 2009. The statistic comes from a study which found that “newspapers have a robust positive effect on political participation” noting in particular that one additional newspaper in a region can boost voter turnout by approximately 0.3 percentage points.
- Consuming local journalism is associated with consistent voting in local elections and a strong connection to community. Pew Research Center analysts found in 2016 that more than a quarter of U.S. adults say they always vote in local elections, and they also have “strikingly stronger” local news habits than people who don’t vote locally on a regular basis.
- Reading local newspapers’ political coverage helps people understand how important local elections are and affects how much they participate in them. Researchers surveyed people in three small Midwest communities to learn more about their media use, political knowledge, and participation in local elections and found newspaper political news exposure strongly predicted political participation, people’s perceived importance of local municipal elections, and how much they voted.
- Local news can boost voting by young people, and help them feel better prepared to go to the polls. Research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement found that local news was a critical tool that young voters, especially people of color, turned to ahead of the 2020 election. The researchers say even more could be done by newsrooms to serve this population, and “local news media holds immense potential as a stakeholder in youth civic and political engagement.”
Weak local journalism = fewer people vote.
- Voters in districts with less campaign coverage had a harder time evaluating candidates and reported they were less likely to vote. Jennifer L. Lawless and Danny Hayes used congressional districts as a lens through which to study political coverage (across 6,000 articles!) and civic engagement (through a survey of nearly 50,000 people) in the month leading up to the 2010 election. Then, the same researchers used longitudinal data to analyze how a decline in local political news coverage reduces citizen engagement. As political news about congressional elections in local newspapers declined over four years, so did citizens’ knowledge about those offices and voting.
- When a major journalistic source of information declines or disappears, there are massive effects on local political engagement. This has happened in hundreds of communities where there have been large declines in local news. Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless also found that the “hollowing out” of American newspapers over 30 years — including a dramatic reduction in the amount of local news produced by newspapers of all sizes, with the most severe cuts in local government and school coverage — had massive effects on local political engagement, including decreased political knowledge, and less interest in political participation.
- Places that lost a local newspaper experienced a “significant” drop in civic engagement compared to cities that didn’t lose one. Lee Shaker studied what happened to civic engagement in Denver and Seattle the year the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed. “The data from the [U.S. Census Bureau] indicate that civic engagement in Seattle and Denver dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009 — a decline that is not consistently replicated over the same time period in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper,” Shaker writes.
- When a newspaper shutters, fewer candidates run and incumbents are more likely to win. 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.”
- Less local media can mean less election turnout. Jackie Filla and Martin Johnson used data on voting and weekly and daily newspaper access in the Los Angeles area to investigate how access to local government information affects turnout in municipal elections. “We find that absent local news, voters are less likely to turnout,” they write.
- Cities and towns with shrinking newsrooms had “significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races” and lower voter turnout. Meghan E. Rubado and Jay T. Jennings used 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 over 20 years. As Josh Benton notes in his overview of the research, the study is notable because most similar research focuses on newspaper closings, not just shrinking staff. In a follow-up paper, Meghan E. Rubado and Jay T. Jennings interviewed working journalists to understand the impact of newspaper employment cuts on the communities they cover. Journalists they talked to described “corruption, mismanagement, lower turnout, and incumbency advantages” as outcomes of reduced government coverage. (We also recommend Nieman Lab’s excellent summary of the paper.)
Thorough local journalism helps people be less biased when considering candidates.
- Giving voters even the slightest bit of additional information on a candidate (like occupation) in addition to having just the race or gender, eliminated or mitigated gender and racial/ethnic biases. Researchers experimented with ballots mimicking different real-life ballot designs that have varying levels of information about each candidate while using names that signal different genders, races, and/or ethnicities. Online respondents pretended to vote using those ballots. The researchers found that “When respondents have the least information, candidates of color—particularly Black candidates—are disadvantaged, among respondents across party, ideological, and racial attitude lines.”
- Local news coverage helps voters assess down-ballot candidates. Looking at people who receive information about their local elected officials compared to people who receive information about officials in neighboring states, Daniel J. Moskowitz notes that local political news coverage provides voters with “Information that allows them to assess down-ballot candidates separately from their national, partisan assessment.”
Quality local journalism can counter divisive national narratives that aim to stoke polarization.
- One local newspaper’s experiment of publishing only local editorials slowed polarization among readers compared to a neighboring town’s newspaper readers. Joshua P. Darr, Louisiana State University, Matthew P. Hitt, Colorado State University, Johanna L. Dunaway, Texas A & M University out the reasoning like this: As Americans consume increasingly nationalized news, they become more partisan. By consuming more local information, people are more likely to be concerned with issues that affect them locally and elect leaders using these criteria rather than relying on national partisan rhetoric or cues to choose leaders. This can create a better democratic system.
- Local media establishes a trusted, shared public understanding of local issues, counteracting distrust of national media. Using focus groups, story diaries, and interviews with residents and local journalists in Kentucky, Andrea Wenzel examined how people navigate tricky conversations about politics and current events, locally and nationally, with neighbors. Wenzel found that recognizing place-based identities and media representations can help facilitate trust in journalism.
- Local news availability keeps leaders accountable to constituents rather than the national party. Research by Marc Trussler shows that this accountability shows potential to mitigate the nationalization of politics.
- Political polarization among voters increases after local newspapers close down. In research published in Journal of Communication, researchers compared data on split-ticket voting and ballot rolloffs in the context of local newspaper closures.They found that places where newspapers had closed saw more people voting for just one party up and down the ballot.. “It seems like it’s the very existence of a local option doing the work here,” Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University said in a writeup about the report. “Just staying open seems like a fairly important factor, regardless of the level of political reporting in the news.”
Every dollar spent on local news produces hundreds of dollars in public benefit by exposing corruption & keeping an eye on government spending.
- Watchdog reporting has an outsized economic impact. 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.”
- Local newspapers hold companies accountable for company misconduct. After a local newspaper closure, researchers found that local facilities increase violations by 1.1% and penalties by 15.2%, indicating that the closures reduce monitoring by the press. They used a data set tracking a wide range of federal violations and the resulting penalties issued by 44 agencies between 2000 and 2017, for a total of 26,450 violations at 10,647 facilities.
- When elected leaders are under investigation, more media coverage can increase the chance that they’ll resign from office. Marcel Garz and Jil Sörenson studied examples in Germany and found “resignations are more common when the media covers the case intensely.”
- Citizens are more likely to vote out elected officials when media outlets highlight the incumbents’ ties to corruption. These findings, from Harvard and Columbia researchers using examples in Mexico, demonstrate support for the media’s role in holding people accountable in a democracy.
- Without watchdog reporters, cities faced higher long-term borrowing costs — that translate to immediate costs for citizens. Municipal bond data in the years after a newspaper closure showed that “cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals.” The study used data from 1996 to 2015 and tracked English-language newspapers in more than 1,200 counties in the U.S. “Without investigative daily reporters around to call bullshit on city hall, three years after a newspaper closes, that city or county’s municipal bond offering yields increased on average by 5.5 basis points, while bond yields in the secondary market increased by 6.4 basis points—statistically significant effects,” Kriston Capps wrote in explaining the study for CityLab.
- “Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies,” researchers from MIT and Stockholm University documented in a study by evaluating their voting records, participation in hearings and more. They also found that federal spending was lower in areas where there was less press coverage of the local members of congress.
- Where there is unreliable internet access, there is likely 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,” researchers behind this study of Australian communities 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.”
- A free press helps tamp down bureaucratic corruption, in many countries. “Of the probable controls on bureaucratic corruption a free press is likely to be among the most effective ones,” authors of this study examining corruption in various nations wrote. They found “a significant relationship between more press freedom and less corruption in a large cross-section of countries.”
- Watchdog coverage is more effective when it includes possible solutions to encourage civic actions. Reporting on its own doesn’t always hold power accountable. To do it most effectively, watchdog coverage should include possible solutions to encourage civic action. This finding comes from Nikki Usher’s interviews with business journalists at The New York Times, Marketplace public radio, and TheStreet to understand how journalists retrospectively considered their responsibilities following the 2007–2009 financial crisis.
People feel a stronger sense of community in places with strong local journalism.
- Local news — with local owners — keeps people engaged with their physical location and local government. Meredith Metzler’s research on this involved surveying people living in two different rural communities about their information habits and assessing their media landscape in the context of where they live. Metzler found a relationship between engaging with local media, affinity to local community, and engagement with that community.
- Local newspapers build a community’s sense of shared connection and place, and it’s not easy to replace them. Researchers came to this conclusion after organizing focus groups of community leaders in Baldwin City, Kansas and discussing the impact of the loss of their local paper on business, technology proficiency, and community attachment. “The overall consensus was that residents miss having a single community information platform,” they write.
- Community members can experience increased loneliness, disconnection, and diminished local pride when a local paper closes. Through 19 interviews with community members of Caroline County, Virginia, following the Caroline Progress’ closure after 99 years, researcher Nick Mathews compiled examples of increasing loneliness, disconnection from community, and diminished local pride.
- Communication within place is critical to producing community. 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.
- Newspaper reading correlates with respondents’ sense of social cohesion. Masahiro Yamamoto has shown 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.)
- It’s not just news outlets — storytelling in general is key. Connection to local storytelling was key to “neighborhood belonging, collective efficacy, and civic participation,” Yong-Chan Kim and Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach found as they examined people’s relationship to community media.
- Even when online news is not as tied to geography, it can build a sense of place. 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
Local news keeps communities informed during times of upheaval, like disasters, protests, and pandemics — when people need critical information to engage their communities and leaders.
- Epidemiologists depend on local newspapers to identify and forecast disease outbreaks. Helen Branswell wrote that “When towns lose their newspapers, disease detectives are left flying blind.” In other words, America’s journalism crisis is also a public health crisis.
- Local media is often the first to reveal a crisis and draw sustained attention to it. 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 involved.
- Media coverage can help reduce pollution. Newspaper coverage of polluters and emissions producers was correlated with a 29% reduction in the emissions compared to factories and plants that were not covered. “While coverage was generally lacking, [Stockholm University’s Pamela] Campa found that plants located in neighborhoods with more newspapers were more likely to receive negative coverage in the press. More significantly, she discovered that plants located in areas with more newspapers had lower emissions,” Sophie Yeo wrote for Pacific Standard about the study.
- Hyperlocal reporting is vital to research efforts across an array of disciplines. When Gothamist and DNAInfo were shut down suddenly, Samuel Stein, a geographer at CUNY Graduate Center, spoke to a number of academics about how, for researchers, local news really is the first draft of history.
Local news isn’t inherently good for communities just because it’s local though, studies show.Journalism clearly has positive outcomes for our democracy, but it is not inherently good. Studies show how local journalism outlets have harmed many communities with their coverage. Shuttering local newspapers is not the only crisis in local news — we also have to work to reimagine and rebuild how newsrooms serve communities, who gets to lead those newsrooms, and how reporting reflects the diverse needs of our nation. It is not enough to simply replace what has been lost — the following studies remind us that we must build something even better as we move forward.
- “Since the colonial era, media outlets have used their platforms to inflict harm on Black people through weaponized narratives that promote Black inferiority and portray Black people as threats to society,” Free Press staff wrote in their rigorous, seismic Media2070 essay. They documented instances such as the deadly overthrow of a local government in Wilmington, North Carolina where Black people held power and other situations that connects racist journalism to lynching, promoting segregation, and more.
- Local reporting can fill information needs, but it can also replicate inequities. Local journalism, especially newspapers, provided critical information needed during the height of COVID regarding healthcare, emergency, and civic information. However, there were signs of information inequality, where people in wealthier, whiter counties had better quality and more local coverage than people in diverse, poorer counties.
- Residents of a primarily Black community say they are not served by journalism that follows traditional practices of “objectivity.” In studying the development over 17 months of a journalism project intended to serve a majority Black community, Andrea Wenzel and Letrell Crittenden determined that “residents’ ideals for local journalism at times clash with dominant journalism norms and practices regarding objectivity.”
- Paywalls limit access to information that operates as part of local media’s civic potential. While paywalls can become a helpful revenue stream for local media facing financial pressure, they also “challenge the civic function of the local news media,” researchers looking at Norwegian and Danish outlets assessed.
- When purchased by corporate predators, local news becomes less frequent, relevant, and inherently local. The quantity and quality of local news decreases in correlation to these acquisitions by media conglomerates. Researchers came to this conclusion after studying more than 130,000 articles from the Denver Post, LA Weekly, the New York Daily News, and more.
- Sensationalized coverage emphasizes short-term conflicts rather than social concerns. By studying the impact of a local newspaper in Australia reporting on a local climate change plan, researchers write “rather than providing an arena for public discussion and constructive debate, we find that the newspaper adopted a clear position rejecting the need for changes in planning for anticipated climate impacts.”
What’s on the horizon for journalism in our democracy?These findings 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. We have seen a lot of transformation and reasons for hope over the past few years since this post was originally published. News leaders are thinking about how to serve their communities, and reckoning with failures of the past. Journalism funders are coming together to fund projects to revitalize local news ecosystems. And funders who haven’t traditionally focused on journalism are joining in as well, realizing they will not achieve the change they seek in healthcare, education and more without information about their focuses. The research above makes the case for why we must continue working to expand support for quality local news that truly reflects and serves its communities. If you want to know more about how, or want to add additional research to this list, reach out to us at LocalNewsLab@democracyfund.org.
- Explore Democracy Fund’s work funding equitable journalism and local news and information ecosystems.
- Subscribe to the Local Fix newsletter for regular updates on innovators in local news
- Read “Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Journalism: What Funders Can Do” and learn what it means to care about equity in journalism.
- Check out this Q&A with UNC PhD candidate Andrea Lorenz to learn more about her work researching the intersection of local news and democracy.