The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The crisis in journalism that’s helping Trump

President Trump in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Monday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Did the collapse of local journalism help give us Donald Trump?

That’s the intriguing thesis of new research published by Politico. Reporters Shawn Musgrave and Matthew Nussbaum compared election results with overall trends in how many people in a given area actually subscribe to a newspaper. As they write:

The results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to [Mitt] Romney in 2012.

Politico reports that, overall, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in 2012 in regions where newspaper subscription rates were low, but was highly likely to be bested by Hillary Clinton — and to underperform Romney — in areas where newspaper subscription rates remain high. Politico turned to the Alliance for Audited Media, which verifies circulation figures for the industry, to pull subscription numbers  on what they described as “more than 1,000 mainstream news publications.”

As Politico reported: “For every 10 percent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points.”

Moreover, when Politico compared rural regions with weak economies where newspaper subscription rates remained strong to similar areas where those rates fell, they discovered Trump underperformed Romney in many of the counties where newspaper circulation remained relatively strong but outperformed him where those rates declined.

Follow Helaine Olen's opinionsFollow

Taken all together, the report highlights the vital and underappreciated role local newspapers play in the media ecosystem, and make it clear that we allow them to wither at our own peril.

It certainly seems like common sense that people who read any trusted local mainstream media newspaper will be more informed than those who do not. But when local news goes away, or is harder to access, people will only have online sources of information. And while we all like to imagine that people scrolling social media for information are turning to a national giant like, well, The Post, they could be reading the latest postings from a Russian bot, checking out the latest rant from conspiracy theorist du jour QAnon, or not reading any news at all.

Meanwhile, Trump regularly makes all sorts of less-than-truthful statements. As Politico notes, Trump’s Twitter feed has more followers than American newspapers have subscribers in total. While reputable mainstream outlets fact-check that stuff with regularity, it doesn’t matter much to people who aren’t reading them.

The withering of local news creates another problem.

It helps to think of local media as a gateway drug for the big national outlets.  People know their local journalists. They are a familiar presence. It is difficult to credibly bash the men and women you regularly see covering the school board meeting every month as promoters of fake news. And they validate the national news — often from the wire services — published by their newspaper.

Opinion | Trump is normalizing violence against journalists, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. So how far behind is scrapping the First Amendment? (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

I was once one of those journalists. I spent evenings at small town suburban city hall and school board meetings, and days interviewing local activists and uncovering wrongdoing, not to mention attending store openings and library closings. People in those cities knew me — and they came to trust me, regularly seeking me out, to give me leads, or simply tell me what they thought about the events of the day.

But the chances of running into someone like my younger self is much smaller today than 20 years ago. It may seem like the best of times for journalism. Almost every day an investigative piece drops from a major name-brand newspaper, whether it’s on Harvey Weinstein’s multi-decade sexual-harassment spree, or Trump’s latest exercise in self-dealing.

But looks are deceiving. Remove the marquee brands, and the industry is ailing. Newspaper employment is down more than 50 percent since the turn of the century. The once vibrant alternative press is but a shadow of its former self. As Politico points out, one out of five news jobs are now based in New York, Washington or Los Angeles. The comparable number in 2004? One in eight. Local news coverage has, correspondingly, withered. And that, in turn, leads to less political engagement.

Local journalists have long served as a validator of the news coming from Washington, New York and Los Angeles, but when local news doesn’t exist they can’t play the role of trusted intermediary. If voters don’t know any journalists, it’s easier for a would-be demagogue to tell people what they want to hear, while vilifying those journalists from the big city who would tell them the truth as playing them for a bunch of rubes. The truth-teller is demonized, while the con artist goes all but unchallenged.

Do you really need me to tell you who wins in that scenario?  We all know who lives in the White House now. The con artist is winning — at least for now.