The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Internet isn’t saving local news. Here’s how that’s hurting democracy.

In this Nov. 1, 2016, photo, a voter is reflected in the glass. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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When the Gothamist network of websites shut down suddenly last week, it marked the latest disappointment in creating an online market for local news.

Since 2009, the Gothamist and DNAinfo sites had covered local politics, culture and entertainment in several cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. But after the company’s New York writers voted to unionize — which CEO Joe Ricketts opposed — the sites went dark. In a letter explaining the decision, Ricketts said that although the group’s journalism had “left the world a better place,” the company was still, “at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure.”

It’s a familiar story. In recent decades we’ve watched scores of local newspapers die, newsrooms shrink, and dozens of local news start-ups flame out in the face of declining — or simply nonexistent — revenue. DJ, play “Another one bites the dust.”

Much has been written about the challenges facing the news business in the Internet and social media age. But recent research helps explain why local news outlets have struggled so mightily — and what that means for citizen engagement in local politics and elections.

Local news isn’t popular

People aren’t that interested in local news. In a 2011 study for the Federal Communications Commission, political scientist Matthew Hindman analyzed data from the Internet research firm ComScore to measure the popularity of online news sites across the country. He found that, in a typical media market, sites devoted to local news received just one-half of 1 percent of all Internet page views.

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The data are even grimmer for online-only sites like Gothamist. According to Hindman’s analysis, when consumers did read local news online, they almost always relied on sites run by established television stations or newspapers. Of the more than 1,000 local news sites that were visited by at least 1 percent of their market’s audience — a pretty low threshold — just 17 were online-only.

Audiences have shifted to national sources

Part of the explanation is that most people don’t use the Internet for news at all. Rather, they shop, play fantasy football and look at photos of friends’ lunches. But even when people do read the news, Hindman found that 80 percent of news-related page views went to national outlets, such as The Washington Post, not local ones. The small portion of the population interested in public affairs seems to care more about what’s happening inside the Beltway than what’s going on in their back yards.

Those findings are consistent with data from a forthcoming book by political scientist Dan Hopkins. He shows that over the past 25 years, news audiences have shifted away from local sources to national ones. That appears to be partly because Americans find news about national political figures, like the president, more engaging than news about their own governor or mayor. And this was true even before Donald Trump.

Still, Americans have a limited appetite even for news about national politics. In a new article, Georgia Kernell, P.J. Lamberson, and John Zaller analyzed ratings for the nightly network news broadcasts in the mid-1990s. They found that the more a network such as ABC devoted its coverage to politically relevant, substantive hard news, the more its ratings fell. The more a network covered the O.J. Simpson murder trial, however, the better it did.

In surveys, people often claim that they want news organizations to devote more attention to hard news. But Kernell and her colleagues conclude bluntly that people’s behavior says otherwise: “American news audiences demand little civic affairs content.”

Local newsrooms are shrinking their staffs and their coverage

Citizens’ lack of interest in local news intersects with declining revenue and circulation numbers for local newspapers across the country, a consequence of the Internet and the expanding media landscape.

In response, news organizations have cut their reporting staffs substantially, effectively cannibalizing their own product. For example, political scientist Erik Peterson reports, based on data from the American Society of News Editors, that local newspapers across the country reduced their newsroom staffs by 28 percent between 2004 and 2014.

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These cuts, especially to reporting positions, were consequential. In a sample of 172 newspapers, coverage of local government — city council, school board and so forth — declined over this same period by about 14 percent. Peterson estimates that a typical cut in newsroom staff — about 10 reporters —- reduced a newspaper’s coverage of local government by about 170 stories each year.

As local news declines, Americans stay away from local elections — even for members of Congress

Hollowing out newsrooms isn’t just bad for journalists’ morale. In a recent article, we show that reducing local news coverage also reduces Americans’ political knowledge and involvement in local elections.

We analyzed the content analysis of campaign coverage from every U.S. House district and found that, on average, newspapers published fewer stories about their local congressional races in 2014 than they had in 2010. The stories were also less substantive. That’s partly because there were fewer competitive races in 2014. But even in districts that remained just as competitive as before, we found small decreases in coverage.

And that mattered for how informed those districts’ voters were. We used panel data — interviews with the same respondents over time — from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. In districts where news coverage declined, people were less able to rate their member of Congress’s performance; identify how liberal or conservative the candidates were; or say who they planned to vote for.

To be sure, the effects were not enormous. For instance, a decline of 14 stories led to a 4 percent decrease in a respondent’s ability to accurately place their House candidates on an ideological scale. But citizen involvement in local politics is already anemic. If even fewer people are paying attention, who is holding elected officials accountable?

The loss of Gothamist and its sister sites will leave a hole in the news in several big cities. But the larger problem for local news across the country is how to get people interested in the first place.

Jennifer L. Lawless is professor of government and director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.