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Does the loss of local newspapers favour political incumbents?

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A fascinating study – ‘Do Newspapers Matter? Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinatti Post’ – suggests the loss of a local newspaper can advantage a sitting politician and damage democratic engagement (hat tip Greenslade).

Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido, who wrote the discussion paper, examined voting patterns and political candidacies in Cincinnati, southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, following the closure of The Cincinnati Post on 31st December 2007. The Post was the smaller of two papers covering the area. The other, the Cincinnati Enquirer, is still in business.

The authors concluded that the loss of the newspaper ‘made local elections less competitive along several dimensions’, notably ‘incumbent advantage, voter turnout, and the number of candidates for office’. Although this paper was focused on a single city, it also cites another study, still in manuscript, that finds, based on 7,000 US towns and cities, that if a town has its own daily or weekly paper the political incumbent has less advantage than if it doesn’t (Jessica Trounstine, Princeton, manuscript, 2009).

‘Do Newspapers Matter?’ is primarily about measuring the correlation between newspaper closure and democratic engagement, but the writers do speculate on some of the reasons for disengagement.

One, of course, is that there is less critical coverage of the politician in power. A town with a single paper will find it more difficult to be persistently critical, especially if much of its advertising comes from the public sector. In a town with no paper at all people will have to find criticism of the local politician on the net – hard to do unless you’re looking for it – and then how do you know what to look for?

Another is that there are even fewer opportunities for rival candidates to get noticed. As it is, it is becoming more difficult for local politicians to get press coverage. For candidates, especially those from the smaller parties, it is more difficult still – unless they do something ‘newsworthy’. This helps to explain Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido’s finding that there are fewer candidates putting themselves forward for public office following the newspaper closure.

With less coverage of politics and fewer candidates it is understandable why a lower number of people would turn out to vote – feeling both less informed and more poorly represented. The result? The person in power stays in power, no matter how good or bad a job they have done.

It would be rash to extend the findings of this single study too far, particularly given it is trying to demonstrate a highly complex correlation and attempting to measure the effect of an absence rather than a presence (always notoriously difficult). But, if we want to understand what we will lose, as a democracy, if large sections of the local press decline and die, then there should be a lot more studies like this.

Written by Martin Moore

March 20th, 2009 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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