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Americans: Without a Local Newspaper, Pay Less Attention to Local Politics

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Local newspapers in the United States have been displaced by the internet. Prof. Michael Sinkinson and his co-authors looked back to when television was the new technology chipping away at newspaper circulation to understand the implications for an informed citizenry. They discovered that as readership declined, so did engagement in local politics.

Since 2004, nearly 2,000 local newspapers in the United States have closed, depriving many Americans of an important source of local information and news. Six percent of counties no longer have a newspaper. The internet is primarily to blame for this decline, as it has sucked away advertising revenue and provided a wealth of free content, but it is worth noting that the trend began before the internet was even a distant dream.

“We’ve long seen alarmist headlines about the death of local journalism,” says Michael Sinkinson, an assistant professor of economics at Yale SOM. “These kinds of closures have been happening for decades.”

A new study co-authored by Sinkinson looks back at a time when another new technology, television, was threatening the dominance of newspapers. Sinkinson studied the impact of television’s spread in the 1940s and 1950s on the health of local newspapers, as well as the implications for an informed citizenry, with Charles Angelucci of MIT and Julia Cagé of Sciences Po Paris. The team discovered that as television drew away readers and advertisers, local papers began to wither—and that without a reliable source of local news, citizens appeared to be less engaged in local politics.

The researchers studied the interaction of the two forms of media using a historical quirk in television broadcast licencing. The Federal Communications Commission halted the licencing of new television stations in September 1948 to address a number of technical and engineering issues.

The “FCC freeze,” as it came to be known, lasted for four years, “and gave us this very clean natural experiment where some markets were randomly introduced to TV four years earlier than others,” Sinkinson says. (The FCC had approved 108 licenses by 1948; 700 were put on hold until after the freeze.)

“We were then able to see how newspapers responded to this new type of media.”

Sinkinson and his colleagues overlaid the geographical reach of active TV stations on top of local newspaper markets and manually collected a wealth of data on each newspaper: What were the circulation figures? How many pages did the paper have? What kind of content was there? What was the cost of advertising? How many advertisements were sold on an annual basis?

It was not obvious, Sinkinson said, what the researchers would find. It was easy to imagine that national TV would eat into the revenue and circulation of local newspapers; but they thought it was also possible that TV would complement local news, creating greater appetite for in-depth local stories.

The findings found that readers started to put down their local newspapers to watch TV—and advertisers followed suit.

“The first big takeaway is that we find a large substitution away from papers, particularly evening papers, and toward TV,” Sinkinson says. National advertisers, specifically, diverted much of their budget for the local marketplace to television.

Sinkinson observes that this was not the start of the demise of local newspapers. In fact, despite the competition, the newspaper industry continued to grow during the introduction of television, albeit more slowly than previously—and slower than TV audiences were growing. This decline in growth resulted in a 5-10% drop in revenue for newspapers, and as Sinkinson puts it, “no business is excited to hear about a 5-10% drop in revenue.” Slimmer papers, with less coverage of everything from national news to sports to local news, were one response.

Sinkinson and his colleagues’ next step was to connect these findings to the level of political engagement in a given area. To investigate this link, they examined split-ticket voting, in which people vote for a Democrat at the national level but a Republican at the state or local level. This voting practice suggests, among other things, voters who are focused on specific candidates rather than party labels. They discovered a lower percentage of split-ticket voters in markets where television was present.

“The idea here is that these voting patterns can indicate whether people are doing their research in terms of local elections,” Sinkinson says “It seem like this is less the case in markets with TV, and this raises the issue about what, potentially, is not being covered at the local level.”

The contemporary relevance of these findings is, of course, unavoidable. And that was part of the point.

“This was a historical paper, but we were trying to relate it to the more recent entry of specialized media, like cable news networks and Craigslist,” Sinkinson says.

“These are all just technical innovations that enter the market and compete with newspapers.”

What happened to the newspapers that were losing readers and advertisers seven decades ago to television? Only ten of the 102 local papers whose content the authors examined were available to examine in 2017. (the researchers looked for newspapers that produced a print format with full issues available online). Those who remained in print published fewer stories, and even fewer of those were original local content.

Sinkinson is troubled by the loss of local papers because, among other things, they serve to keep people informed about corruption and misdeeds among their elected officials, and they frequently break stories with far-reaching consequences; for example, a small paper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, exposed the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. And, as local news fades, local politics become more nationalized, which, according to other researchers, contributes to political polarization.

“High-quality journalism is very expensive, and newspapers are competing with other forms of media that are low cost to operate and free to distribute,” he says.

“I wish that people valued the local press more than they do.”

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