Political Polarization Begins When Local Newspapers End
Without local newspapers, it’s a race to the political bottom
Shortly before the Constitutional Convention began, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend and fellow Virginian, Edward Carrington, “ Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Months later, Jefferson inspired the creation of the Bill of Rights, which enshrined newspapers into the Constitution via the First Amendment.
His reasoning is potent and simple: less local news means less democracy. Today, the US is living proof that Jefferson was right.
Contrary to popular belief, the silos of US politics weren’t built by Congress or by the ginned-up rhetoric of President Trump. They were built with the ashes of 1,800 local newspapers that have stopped printing since 2004.
Many of these newspapers lost the advertising battle with companies like Facebook and Google who can accurately target advertisements to maximize their effect. In 2000, the news industry reaped $48.7 billion in print advertising revenue. Fast forward a decade, and that total dropped to $14.7 billion, with digital advertising representing a growing portion of the shrinking pie.
Other newspapers were squeezed out of circulation after they were acquired by hedge funds and private equity firms. And every day it seems their grip over local journalism grows stronger.
In Denver, Alden Global Capital bought the city’s second-oldest newspaper, The Denver Post, and subsequently slashed the reporting staff from 300 down to 70 — all in the name of “efficiency”.
Southern California Media Group also felt the effects of Alden’s swift ax in 2016 when it was combined with Los Angeles News Group and Freedom Communications. By mid-2017, nearly half the staff working for newspapers under the banner company were laid off.
These staff reductions ultimately amount to fewer journalists covering important beats such as city hall, business, and crime.
Today, nearly one-in-five Americans live in a “news desert” — an area with no local newspaper. This means that their only source of news comes from national publications that feed off bickering and infighting in Washington D.C. And communities are worse off because of it.
Studies by the Brookings Institute show that when local journalism erodes, political polarization increases because readers are exposed to more articles about gossip and amateur psychology and fewer articles about issues that affect their community. This is one factor leading to the surge of distrust in news as a whole, outside of President Trump’s insistent claims of “Fake News”. These studies also show that corruption increases alongside government salaries and taxes, while government performance declines.
Polarization often ends in a stalemate when it reaches local legislatures. The same is true of Congress. When our elected representatives don’t talk to those across the political aisle, less governing occurs.
The answer to this conundrum isn’t simply voting for a party that promises to get more done. That is how democracies die. Electing officials that promise to work across the aisle is the only way to get through this political slough.
One may argue that the increased voter turnout rates in US elections points to a flaw in this assessment. However, fewer voters are turning in split-ticket votes, meaning they often vote for candidates representing the same party. This shows that even though more people are voting numerically, the votes cast more often follow ideological divides than before.
Furthermore, CityLab found that when local newspapers close, fewer candidates run for political office.
As Megan Rubado, former reporter at The Syracuse Post-Standard and current assistant professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, told the publication, “ “If there’s nobody reporting on or providing information about candidates, about legislation, about how money is being spent, or the budgeting process, how will people know that they require a quality challenger to unseat an ineffective mayor? They don’t know the mayor is ineffective!”
Rubado and her colleagues study just how much local news affects the elections. In one experiment, they found that when newspapers increase their staff by one reporter for each 1,000-person circulation, the number of candidates in local elections increases by a factor of 1.23. The study also found evidence that voters were less likely to participate.
“It’s generally the difference between having an option or not,” Rubado told CityLab.
In fact, a majority of local elections in several states go uncontested. During the last legislative year, 56 percent of local elections went uncontested, according to Ballotpedia. Incumbents in Georgia don’t face a challenger in 80 percent of the state’s elections.
These problems are likely to fester if communities don’t come to support their local news organizations. Facebook executives now admit they got Trump elected in 2016. And they’re not going to curb that system in 2020.
So ask yourself: Do you want US politics to be less polarized? If so, find a way to support your local news organization. Your community depends on it.