When Local Newspapers Fail

Last weekend, I was doing some research in preparation for my upcoming Media and Public Policy classes, when we would explore the role played by local newspapers in local elections.

The discussion in my class revolved around the upcoming elections in Indianapolis, where citizens will vote for the Mayor and members of the City-County Council. It has been my strong impression that the Indianapolis Star–the sole (barely) surviving daily newspaper–has given short shrift to the campaigns, and I confirmed that impression by scrolling through the archives.

My admittedly cursory review of the coverage of the last year or so also reinforced the extent to which the paper has neglected coverage of the operations of local government.  It isn’t just the electoral “horse races,” which no longer command the column inches they once did; there is virtually no information about the public policies being pursued by the Council or the administration; no coverage of local school board activities–not even articles about the occasional heated zoning battles and fights over sign ordinances that work their way up to the Metropolitan Plan Commission.

Between the annoying and intrusive advertisements that now clutter the local news section, and the even more annoying pop-up ads in its electronic version, the Star tells its declining number of subscribers  about sports, concerts and new bar and restaurant openings –and not much else.

I firmly believe that civic engagement and local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out.

I’ve previously mentioned studies of cities that have lost their newspapers; that loss has been followed by diminished civic and political activity, and higher costs of borrowing (those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.)

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

The article argues that “the loss of professional expertise in coverage of local government has negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.”

The data show that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing had, on average, significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races. We also find suggestive evidence that lower staffing levels are associated with lower voter turnout.

Another recent study found newspaper closures linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go. That has certainly been the case here.

When I taught this class four or five years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?”

The lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.


New York, New York

When I told a coworker that I was coming to New York for the weekend, he shuddered. He hasn’t ever been there, he said, but he hates big cities.

I LOVE big cities. And therein lies a political challenge for those who would be mayor. We talk about the need for our candidates to demonstrate a vision for the city, but we have very different ideas about what sort of vision we’re looking for.

The virtues of urban life that seem so off-putting to many people–and so appealing to me–are multiple: the diversity of the people (and the tolerance for difference that is a necessary consequence), the multiple thriving arts scenes, the great public transportation, and the endless choices of everything–neighborhoods, retail establishments, food.

With all of this, of course, comes a certain anonymity, which delights some people and deeply troubles others. The virtues of community, which are accessed more easily in smaller cities and towns, have to be actively created in larger cities. And the mix of people–diverse in beliefs and attitudes as well as religion, skin color, national origin and the like–creates a culture that celebrates messages and behaviors that would be upsetting or shocking in smaller venues. (For example, we were able to get tickets to Book of Mormon–a smash hit–only because my nephew “knows people.” We loved it, but I imagine its irreverent message about all religion–not just Mormonism–would be received differently in more pious venues.)

What is our vision for Indianapolis? I doubt there is much consensus. Even people in my downtown neighborhood are divided about the virtues of urbanism; some still want the big lawns and low densities of suburban life, just closer to the city’s core. They fail to recognize that supporting the amenities they do want requires the urban characteristics they don’t.

We are in the middle of electing a new mayor and council. Ideally, we would evaluate all the candidates on two separate measures: their visions, and their capacities to achieve those visions. The best elections, from the standpoint of us voters, would offer us equally qualified candidates with competing visions. My colleague could vote for the person whose vision of Indianapolis is pastoral; I could vote for the candidate promising more urbanism. Unfortunately, we rarely get that sort of choice, and this election is no exception.

For mayor, we get to choose between a feckless incumbent whose management skills are invisible and whose vision of urbanism is a faux Chinatown, and a candidate with demonstrated management skills whose vision–better education, public safety and economic development–is solid, but hardly soaring.

Well–there’s always an occasional weekend in New York.