Expert Commentary

How do newspapers affect civic life? Data and analysis on Seattle and Denver

2014 study from Portland State University published in Political Communication on how the loss of newspapers in two U.S. cities diminished civic life.

Newspapers have traditionally been an important part of civil society, providing information to citizens, convening groups around events and issues, and serving as a watchdog against abuses by those in power. The decline of traditional newspaper journalism and patterns within the business of media have all been well documented. The Federal Communications Commission described these dynamics in its comprehensive 2011 report “Information Needs of Communities.” If newspapers played an important part in civic engagement and democracy, should their decline concern us? It has long been asserted by media members and commentators that newspapers are a vital ingredient in American community life, but what do the data say? Political science research experiments have sometimes found that there is no necessary connection between political participation and newspaper exposure, but the topic continues to be explored from different angles.

Internet optimists point to evidence that shows how digital engagement has led to a major increase in political activity on social media sites, and news — not newspapers, per se — is the key to fostering robust civic life. Others go further, arguing that those who lament the loss of traditional media not only underestimate the power of the Internet, but also view old media through rose-tinted glasses. Still, increased competition for audiences has led to increasing polarization, as news outlets resort to increasingly sensationalist and controversial tactics. And evidence from the Pew Research Center has suggested that declining resources may have impacted journalists’ ability to act as honest brokers between politicians and the public.

A 2014 study published in Political Communication, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” attempts to quantify the larger impacts of declining print media on society. The author, Lee Shaker of Portland State University, used data from the 2008 and 2009 Current Population Survey (CPS) to assess the year-over-year change in civic engagement in 18 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. In the cities examined, two lost major newspapers around that time: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, founded in 1863, went online-only, while the Rocky Mountain News, established in 1859, was shuttered by the E.W. Scripps chain in 2009.

By comparing civic engagement in Denver and Seattle to that in the 16 other metropolitan areas, the study attempts to isolate the impact of newspaper closures from other possible confounding variables. Shaker explicitly controlled for levels of unemployment and campaign advertising in the 2008 election, as both varied from city to city and had potential impacts on civic engagement.

The study’s findings include:

  • At the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official, buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values, and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch.
  • Measures of civic engagement in Denver and Seattle declined between 2008 and 2009. In Denver, four out of the five civic-engagement indicators declined significantly between 2008 and 2009, and Seattle saw declines in two out of five engagement categories.
  • In the other metropolitan areas studied almost none showed a statistically significant change in civic engagement. One measure, boycotting goods and services, declined significantly in Cincinnati while four indicators in different areas increased in that city.
  • At a national level, civic engagement did decline between 2008 and 2009, but less so than observed in Denver and Seattle.
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer served a small readership before its closure — 8% of households compared with 20% for the Denver Rocky Mountain News — and maintained an online presence after the closure of the print edition. This may explain the greater decline in civic engagement in Denver compared with Seattle.
  • Declines in circulation in Denver and Seattle were no worse than nationwide trends and levels of civic engagement in the communities were relatively high, adding weight to the theory that the newspaper closures led to a decline in civic engagement, not the other way around.

“The advent of new communication opportunities suggests that new forms of engagement will also develop,” Shaker writes in the conclusion, but he notes that “there are many questions about the importance of place online: For example, why should any one place matter when we may all be virtual and interconnected? And yet our society is still geographically organized and governed. Ultimately, if we desire healthy and productive democratic communities, then the provisioning of local news — which helps tie citizens to each other and their communities — must continue.”

Related research: A 2010 study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “The Future of News and the Internet,” explores the state of newspapers in the U.S., other OECD countries and around the world. While many but not all member countries face declining titles and readership, newspapers remain vibrant in a number of non-OECD countries — for example, in list of the top 100 titles by circulation, 25 are in China and 20 in India. Overall, “large country-by-country and title-by-title differences and the data currently do not lend themselves to make the case for ‘the death of the newspaper,’ in particular if non-OECD countries and potential positive effects of the economic recovery are taken into account.”

Keywords: news, new media, social media, online community, Colorado, Washington State, Denver, Seattle, joint venture

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