The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The decline of local news is threatening citizen engagement

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When the White House announced last week that President Obama would grant interviews to three YouTube stars after Tuesday’s State of the Union address, it not only marked the first time “fartbag” made its way into media coverage of the august annual speech. It also served as yet another reminder of how the evolving media environment is reshaping Washington politics.

As important as these changes might be, it’s easy to forget that perhaps an even more politically consequential shift in the media landscape is happening at the local level. New research by me and American University political science professor Jennifer Lawless suggests that the impoverishment of local political news in recent years is driving down citizen engagement.

Lawless and I aren’t the first to explore a link between the changing local news environment and political engagement. Previous work has shown that the recent deaths of newspapers in big cities — such as Cincinnati, Denver and Seattle — have coincided with lower levels of civic participation. With fewer outlets providing public affairs information, voters appear less politically active.

But our analysis, based on a large-scale study of local coverage and citizen behavior in every congressional district across the country, demonstrates that the fading of two-newspaper towns is not the only problem. When the content of local news deteriorates — as has happened nationwide in an era of newsroom austerity — so do citizen knowledge and participation.

The core of our study is an analysis of local newspaper coverage during the 2010 midterm elections. We identified the largest-circulating newspaper within each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts and conducted an in-depth content analysis of U.S. House campaign coverage in the month leading up to the election (Oct. 2 through Nov. 2, 2010). We focused our attention on newspaper coverage because this is virtually the only venue where House races receive meaningful attention.

Based on our analysis of more than 6,000 news stories, we first demonstrate that the volume and substance of coverage is affected by the competitiveness of a House race and the size of a newspaper covering it. Competitive races get more coverage, and more issue-focused coverage, than landslide contests. For instance, toss-up races received almost one story per day on average, nearly three times as many as safe districts. And large newspapers are less likely than smaller outlets to devote attention to any single congressional election in their market.

Duh, you say. Though certainly unsurprising, these results help trace the pathway by which the political and economic environment can shape the content of information citizens have at their disposal. With a dwindling number of competitive House contests, there are shrinking incentives for news organizations to offer more than perfunctory coverage. And as smaller papers have folded, making larger newspapers the lone sources of local news in many communities, local political coverage is getting harder to find.

When we merge our newspaper data with survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we find that voters in districts with less news coverage know less about the candidates running for the House. For instance, as the volume of news coverage declines, citizens are less able to identify candidates as liberals or conservatives. They are also less likely to say that they will cast a ballot in the House contest.

To be sure, the effects are not enormous. But even accounting for campaign spending, individuals’ education levels and partisanship, and other key variables, local news contributes to citizens’ ability — or lack thereof — to form judgments about politicians. For example, a decline of two standard deviations in the number of news stories in a district (about 26) reduces by about two points the likelihood of a respondent being able to identify a candidate’s ideology.

We find that this is true not only for the least politically engaged voters but also those who are typically more attentive to politics. Where the news environment is impoverished, engagement is diminished for all citizens.

That differs from the pattern that political scientist Markus Prior documents at the national level, where the vast expansion of news and entertainment options has widened the gap in political involvement between the most and least politically interested citizens. Prior shows that just as cable TV and the Internet allow political junkies to become ever more informed, they also allow citizens who don’t care about politics to turn instead to SportsCenter, the newest “Real Housewives” franchise or cat videos. (Don’t get me wrong: This is undeniably awesome.) As a consequence, the information-rich get richer, and the information-poor get poorer.

Why do we find more uniform effects? We suspect it is because mainstream news outlets still constitute the dominant source of information for local politics. Few hyperlocal news sites and other online outlets have gained traction and become reliable sources for political news. This leaves even politically engaged citizens with few alternatives for information about House candidates when news coverage in their local paper falls away.

This development has potentially profound implications. To the extent that a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry is a marker of a healthy political system, the demise of local news should raise concerns about the operation of electoral democracy. An anemic news environment makes it more difficult for citizens to hold their local representatives accountable.

And that may be far more consequential than whether the president gives an interview to the “Queen of YouTube.”