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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Local View: Decline of local newspapers leads to an uninformed electorate

By Dee Anne Finken
Published: December 13, 2020, 6:01am

As a politics fan, a former journalist and retired journalism director at Clark College, I thoroughly enjoyed Jim Camden’s report “In 1991 more than one-third of Washington was represented in the Legislature by two parties. In 2021? Hardly any.” The piece, which appeared online, was highly informative and important.

Beyond the causes Camden identifies for today’s political polarization, I’d like to point to at least one other factor: The unfortunate decline in responsible local news coverage playing out across the country. 

One in five Americans now lack regular access to local media coverage. I want to emphasize the descriptor local here. That’s because the big news organizations, namely the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, aren’t facing the same challenges as the locals.

How has this sad state of affairs come to be? The culprits, of course, include the internet, including the rise of online advertising, along with the public fascination with social media. As a result, some 1,800 local and regional newspapers have closed entirely since 2004. According to Nieman Lab, a Harvard University-affiliated think tank, newsroom jobs across the country dropped 47 percent between 2007 and 2017. That’s from 74,000 employees to just over 39,000.

And then there’s the increasing number of small locals purchased by hedge-fund managers who proceed to reduce once-lively newspapers into mere ghosts of their former selves.

A number of academic studies support the idea that, as Camden describes, voters are becoming more partisan. Moreover, these studies link the change to the decline in local news coverage.

“The more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government,” wrote Johanna Dunaway, professor of communications at Texas A&M University, the co-author of “Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior,” a study that appeared in the December 2018 issue of the Journal of Communication.

Dunaway and her fellow researchers, Joshua P. Darr and Matthew P. Hitt, assert that local media provide a valuable alternative to national news, “which often focuses on partisan conflict” and colors “politics as a game with winners and losers.”

Furthermore, the local news outlets provide readers with what the nationals can’t give them: Up-close details about the men and women who want to lead our state, regional and local governments.

The researchers found similar trends to what Camden reported. In 1992, before significant internet competition and ad revenue decline hit local newsrooms, voters in more than one-third of the states with Senate elections selected a candidate from a party different from the party of their presidential pick. Fast forward to 2016, when local newspapers were in free fall, “there were no states in which voters did that, and more voters cast straight party-line ballots than at any point in the past century.”

The researchers then compared regions in 2012 where newspapers had closed or merged with regions that did not lose a paper. “Voters were 1.9 percent more likely to vote for the same party for president and senator after a newspaper closes in their community, compared to voters in statistically similar areas where a newspaper did not close.”

(For those who might scoff at the significance of 1.9 percent, the researchers pointed out that such a margin can and has determined elections.)

The researchers considered a couple of explanations, including whether voters in no-newspaper regions had left their ballots blank for lower-level offices, perhaps signaling they felt less knowledgeable about local candidates. But those voters did not leave the lower portions of their ballots blank.

The researchers were unequivocal in their findings. Furthermore, they called for action to turn the tide away from this partisan polarization: “When they lose local newspapers, … readers turn to their political partisanship to inform their political choices. If Americans can … support local news with their dollars and attention, it could help to push back against the partisan polarization that has taken over American politics today.” 

That’s news worth heeding.

Dee Anne Finken is a retired director of the journalism program at Clark College.