Study: Political Polarization Increases When Local Newspapers Close

By |2019-02-08T14:10:35+00:00January 31st, 2019|

Communities lose ‘local perspective’ without a paper and vote differently; two additional studies show fiscal and environmental consequences for communities without a newspapers

People vote differently when they don’t have a local newspaper in their community, according to a new study published in the Oxford Journal of Communications.

The reason is because communities that lose a local newspaper are more likely to have displaced readers who see politics through a “nationalized” perspective that comes from national media outlets—a perspective that has been proven to contain greater amounts of partisanship and contribute directly to the increasing polarization in American politics—rather than through a localized perspective of a paper, according to the study.

“In the event that a local newspaper closes, people turn to national news,” said lead researcher on the study and mass communications professor at Louisiana State University, Joshua Darr. “And national news is much more likely to portray partisan conflict and contain polarizing rhetoric.”

“In the event that a local newspaper closes, people turn to national news and national news is much more likely to portray partisan conflict and contain polarizing rhetoric.”

In the study, “Newspaper Closures Polarize Voting Behavior,” Darr and his two fellow researchers—Matthew Witt from Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway from Texas A&M University—looked at split-ticket voting in communities that had lost a newspaper and compared it to communities that still have a local newspaper.

What the team found was that voters in communities without a local newspaper were two-percent less likely to have split-tickets in presidential and senatorial elections—which, Darr said, is a commonly-accepted measurement of political polarization.

“People were voting more with their party and less according to the attributes of the candidate in areas that had lost a local newspaper,” Darr said. “By giving people a local option, local newspapers can prevent this nationalizing and polarizing tide that’s been endemic in American politics for the last several decades.”

Joshua Darr, lead researcher on the study.

Darr said the amount of political coverage a local paper provides, or does not provide, did not seem to affect voting behavior. What did make an impact, he said, was the paper’s existence as a viable source of news for its community members.

“By giving people a local option, local newspapers can prevent this nationalizing and polarizing tide that’s been endemic in American politics for the last several decades.”

It’s largely about addition and subtraction, Darr said. When a local paper closes a subtraction happens and the void left after that closure is usually filled with another source of media (an addition) –more than likely from a national news source such as cable news, national newspapers or online news.

These national sources of news, which are more available than ever, are what causes “displaced” local newspaper readers to experience news that is more partisan and acerbic in its essence.

“When the national news covers politics and says, ‘of the two parties are so far apart,’ or ‘oh they can’t get along in Washington because there’s so much gridlock,’ it makes people more polarized,” Darr said. “That’s less common in local papers.”

National news is still necessary and important to read, Darr said, but news consumers should be mindful about the fact that consuming nothing but national news puts them at a greater likelihood to feel and vote from a more polarized perspective.

Consumers used to be able to get their national news and local news all in one package—the local paper, which would run wire stories about national and state politics and also provide its own local news coverage in the same place.

That combination of balanced local, state and national news happens less now because national news is so widely available and because many newspaper bureaus in D.C. and at statehouses around the country have shuttered. This, along with newspaper closures, has eroded what Darr refers to as the “local perspective.”

Looking ahead, Darr said he would like to expand the study and see if split-ticket voting happens less in locations without a newspaper in state and local elections. He said he anticipates that the polarization dynamic would be even more apparent at both levels.

“Presidential and senate races aren’t very local so the fact that we found that big of an effect on those races shows us that there’s probably something even more powerful happening in local politics,” he said.

One takeaway from the current study Darr said he hopes people take away is this: Where people get their news matters and impacts them in more ways than they may have previously thought.

“Where you get your news matters in terms of how you experience other people’s political views,” Darr said. “How you experience politics and what you hear about and what you think is important is going to be very different if you’re consuming national news. And when local news goes away, that’s probably what you’re going to turn to and it’s going to change the way you see the political world.”

“How you experience politics and what you hear about and what you think is important is going to be very different if you’re consuming national news. And when local news goes away, that’s probably what you’re going to turn to and it’s going to change the way you see the political world.”

Fiscal, Environmental Costs of Losing a Newspaper

Two additional studies within the last year have found that there are other consequences citizens face when they do not have a newspaper servicing their community.

One consequence of newspapers closing is that the cost of running local government increases, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for a government that will be run less efficiently.

As reported in the last edition of Virginia’s Press, the study “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” by professors from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois found that the cost of borrowing money and running local government increases when a local newspaper closes.

This happens because lenders see cities without newspapers as “riskier borrowers” and therefore increase interest rates on money borrowed by cities and towns to fund public projects. The cities are seen as risky because lenders place a value on the coverage newspapers provide and how that coverage holds officials accountable. Without the coverage of a newspaper, lenders imply—through higher lending rates– that local officials could act more reckless in their decision making.    

“Local newspapers provide monitoring and deterrence roles of the local government, and hold the local government accountable,” said Paul Gao, lead researcher on the article and professor at Notre Dame. “Without local newspapers, government is less efficient in general, including managing projects financed by the municipal bonds.”

The second consequence that has been published in a study this past fall is environmental.

A researcher at Stockholm School of Economics found by analyzing data from the Environmental Protection Agency that newspapers play a role in helping reduce plant-based toxic emissions. The study, “Press and leaks: Do newspapers reduce toxic emissions?” found that when a newspaper covers emissions by facilities in its area, emitters are 29 percent more likely to take steps to curb emissions than those who are not covered by a newspaper.

“Before these plants are featured in the news, their emissions evolve over time in a trend that is comparable to plants that are not covered in the newspapers,” Pamel Campa, lead author on the study, said to Pacific Standard. “Then, after I observe some newspaper coverage, the plant that is in the news drops its toxic emissions.”

The reason newspapers can potentially help reduce emissions is largely the same reason they help keep the costs of local government lower—the coverage papers provide hold people in power accountable and make their actions publicly known. This, in turn, affects how they do their job. It’s largely local newspaper coverage that also helps keep political polarization at bay in communities.