Expert Commentary

Civic engagement declines when local newspapers shut down

Studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets have lower levels of civic engagement, voter turnout and political accountability.

bundles of newspapers

It’s not news that it’s tough times for the newspaper industry. A March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. Journalists suffer layoffs and buyouts; and readers are left in a decimated news landscape, with local papers coming under the ownership of larger publishers focused on their business interests, or ceasing to exist entirely.

Scholars are studying what these closures might mean for the public in terms of political engagement and government accountability. Studies have found that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout. On the other hand, studies show that areas with more local coverage tend to have increased turnout in local elections and lower spending on discretionary municipal projects. These findings suggest newspapers might play a role in encouraging political participation and accountability. A new working paper lends further evidence, finding that newspaper closures are linked with increased municipal borrowing costs and decreased government efficiency. Journalist’s Resource has summarized these studies that show why it’s important to keep local news alive.


Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance
Gao, Pengjie; et al. SSRN working paper, 2018. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3175555.

Summary: This working paper looks at associations between local newspaper closures and municipal borrowing costs. It analyzes daily newspaper data from 1996 to 2015 in U.S. counties with three or fewer newspapers. Of the 1,596 newspapers studied, 296 folded, merged with other papers or stopped publishing on a daily basis. “Our main finding is that newspaper closures have a significantly adverse impact on municipal borrowing costs. Specifically, following the three-year period after a newspaper closure, municipal bond yields in the secondary market increase by 6.4 basis points, while offering yields increase by 5.5 basis points.” In other words, it becomes more expensive for these localities to borrow money. The authors suggest this might be “because potential lenders have greater difficulty evaluating the quality of public projects and the government officials in charge of these projects” in the absence of local papers. The study also found increased government inefficiencies, such as higher wage rates and numbers of employees per capita, in the absence of daily newspapers — additional indicators of the role local papers play in public accountability.

The Decline of Local News and Its Effects: New Evidence from Longitudinal Data
Hayes, Danny; Lawless, Jennifer L. The Journal of Politics, 2018. DOI: 10.1086/694105.

Summary: This paper suggests an association between the decline of local news and citizen engagement in politics. The authors analyzed over 10,000 stories about U.S. House campaigns during the 2010 and 2014 elections. They find declines in both volume and substance of campaign coverage between the two election years, as measured by the number of stories published, the percentage of stories mentioning both candidates, the number of mentions of specific issues and the number of references to candidates’ traits. The researchers then looked at survey data collected from the same set of 9,500 respondents before each of the two elections. The survey tested whether respondents could “place the Democratic candidate to the left of the Republican on an ideological scale,” rate their House incumbent and share their vote intention. The authors compared these responses to shifts in coverage. They found that increases in coverage were associated with improved political knowledge and decreases in coverage were associated with decreases in political engagement.

As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge, and Participation in US House Elections
Hayes, Danny; Lawless, Jennifer L. The Journal of Politics, 2015. DOI: 10.1086/679749.

Summary: This study uses methods similar to those described above to analyze the 2010 U.S. House midterm elections. The analysis suggests that hotly contested districts and districts served by smaller news outlets receive more coverage with more substance than districts with uncompetitive races and larger outlets. Looking at the relationship between this news data and citizen responses to a survey that gauges political engagement, they found people in districts with less coverage were less likely to vote, share opinions about the candidates running and provide evaluations of their current representatives. The finding held regardless of political awareness levels, “indicating that the deleterious consequences of a decline in local coverage are widespread, not restricted to the least attentive citizens.”

Newspaper Markets and Municipal Politics: How Audience and Congruence Increase Turnout in Local Elections
Kübler, Daniel; Goodman, Christopher. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/17457289.2018.1442344.

Summary: This study looks at links between the local media environment and turnout in local elections in Switzerland. The paper finds that particular features of the newspaper market are associated with turnout. These factors are newspaper audience and congruence. Newspaper audience is “the share of newspaper readers in the municipal population.” Newspaper congruence is a measure of the paper’s localization of their content. The researchers looked at circulation data for 384 municipalities in the study. They found that areas with higher newspaper penetration and localized content have higher turnout in municipal elections.

Newspapers and Political Accountability: Evidence from Japan
Yazaki, Yukihiro. Public Choice, 2017. DOI: 10.1007/s11127-017-0444-x.

Summary: This study looks at associations between local and national newspapers and political accountability, as measured by local public works spending. “Using circulation data for 105 Japanese newspapers, I find that increases in the market share of locally circulating newspapers within a prefecture are associated with decreases in public works spending, particularly expenditures on local governments’ discretionary projects.” The author interprets this as an improvement in political accountability. The study also looks at the role of national news coverage of public works spending, and finds that as it increases, the influence of local newspapers on spending also rises.

Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement
Shaker, Lee. Political Communication, 2014. DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2012.762817.

Summary: This study presents links between newspaper closures in Seattle and Denver and declines in civic engagement among residents. The study looks at Census data from 2008 and 2009, comparing the civic engagement of citizens in areas that lost a newspaper the following year with people in cities that did not. Civic engagement was measured by responses to questions about contact with public officials, membership in civic organizations and more. The magnitude of the decline in civic engagement in Seattle and Denver was larger than the national trend, and comparison cities with similar qualities “showed little evidence of decline.” This suggests that measurement issues or other, national variables like political or economic conditions do not explain this variation.


For more research on local media, Journalist’s Resource has covered the changing focus of broadcast news and a 2015 report on local news and citizen engagement in the internet age.


Information needs of communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age

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