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What Would Happen Without Local Newspapers?

- March 18, 2009

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The specter of cities without newspapers is looming, according to accounts like this piece about The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. If that were true, what might happen?

Two interesting books by political scientists speak to this question. Notably, but not necessarily surprisingly, neither scholar has been quoted in the last year in any news article about the decline of newspapers — at least according to my quickie Lexis search.

The first book is Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability by Douglas Arnold. In 1993-94, Arnold gathered data about how 67 different local newspapers covered 187 different congressional representatives. He then merged these data with a large national election survey conducted in 1994.

He finds that greater newspaper coverage of congressional representatives makes newspaper readers more likely to: (1) report reading about the incumbent and challenger during campaign season; and (2) recognize the names of these candidates, know how long the incumbent has been in office, and like or dislike something about them.

Without local newspapers, it’s quite possible that people wouldn’t know as much about their representatives. And this has important consequences for accountability:

bq. A basic premise of this book is that the nature of the informational environment affects prospects for accountable government. More and better information about what elected officials are doing in office increases both the chances that citizens will notice the information and the likelihood that the information will affect citizens’ decisions about whether elected officials deserve to be reelected or removed. A rich informational environment also affects how elected officials behave in office. When officials know that what they do will be reported to citizens, they behave differently than when they believe that their actions will be forever hidden.

The second book is even more relevant: Nothing to Read by Jeffery Mondak. Mondak studies the consequences of the 1992 Pittsburgh newspaper strike. The strike, which lasted from May 1992 until January 1993, ensured that Pittsburgh did not have a daily newspaper during the most of the 1992 campaign. Mondak compares then compares Pittsburgh voters to those in a similar city, Cleveland, which did not experience a strike. What did he find?

* Pittsburgh voters did make recourse to other sources of news. They were less likely than Cleveland voters to get information from local newspapers, but more likely to get it from television, radio, magazines, and national newspapers. Those most likely to read local newspapers — people interested and informed about politics — were more likely to seek other print sources.

* Pittsburgh and Cleveland voters were no different in how much attention they reported paying to news about the Presidential or Senate campaign. But Pittsburgh voters reported paying less attention to House campaign news.

* Pittsburgh voters were not less knowledgeable about current events, campaign news, or the presidential candidates’ policy positions — as measured by factual questions.

* Pittsburgh voters were not less likely to report discussing the Presidential or Senate race, but they were less likely to report discussing the House race.

* Pittsburgh voters also differed in the kinds of information they drew on in voting for their House representative. They were more likely to depend on the views of their friends, family, and neighbors — those with whom they discussed politics. They were less likely to draw on their presidential vote. That is, there were weaker presidential “coattails” for Pittsburgh voters. Pittsburgh voters seemed to lack the information necessary to connect the House candidates and the presidential candidates.

What conclusions can we draw? Clearly, the elimination of local newspapers does not mean that people will know nothing about politics, or learn nothing about politics. As Mondak notes, some people are intrinsically motivated to follow politics and they will find a way to do so via other media. Perhaps that bodes well for the Post-Intelligencer’s future as an exclusively on-line news source.

However, “other media” may be poorly suited to providing certain kinds of information, and in particular information about local politics. This is most evident in the consequences for the Pittsburgh strike for the House race. Mondak’s findings dovetail with Arnold’s in this respect: without local news coverage, people simply pay less attention to congressional campaigns. The irony, of course, is that the House was designed to be more intimately tied to public opinion.