The laws of supply and demand aren’t working for local news.
The local news business was devastated by COVID-19, even though consumers wanted more of its product. Visits to local news websites spiked by 89 percent from February to March 2020, but newspapers did not profit from having more readers: Ad revenues for the largest newspaper publisher in the nation, Gannett, dropped 35 percent from 2019 to 2020. Journalists were laid off, furloughed or forced to accept early retirements or pay cuts.
The pandemic, however, merely accelerated a crisis in local journalism that is now at least two decades old. From 2000 to 2018, weekday newspaper circulation fell from 55.8 million households to an estimated 28.6 million; between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment fell by 51 percent; and since 2004, more than 1,800 local newspapers have closed across the nation.
Perhaps even more alarming is that the public is largely unaware of this crisis. In late 2018, 71 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that their local news media was doing very or somewhat well financially, even though only 14 percent said they had paid for local news in the past year. But if local newspapers go away or are weakened beyond recognition, a real possibility given their steep decline and Americans’ lack of awareness of it, we won’t just feel nostalgic for them — we’ll feel actual consequences.
A growing body of research has found that government is worse off when local news suffers. In fact, inadequate local news has been linked to more corruption, less competitive elections, weaker municipal finances and a prevalence of party-line politicians who don’t bring benefits back to their districts. It’s not just government performance, however. My research with Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University shows that when local newspapers close, people don’t find another local option. Instead, they get their news from national outlets, and in the absence of local news, people are more likely to vote for one party up and down the ballot.1
What explains this change? Local political news offers Americans what political scientist Lilliana Mason calls a “cross-cutting identity” — or something that connects partisans on a different dimension instead of further dividing them along party lines. Put another way, when people read news about their neighborhoods, schools and municipal services, they think like locals. When they read about national political conflict, they think like partisans.
In our research we found that less local news meant more polarization. Then, with a little luck, we were also able to study the other side of the coin — whether more local news could actually bring people together.
In July 2019, Julie Makinen, the executive editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, California, came up with her own experiment after reading our article: She decided to drop national politics from the opinion page for a month. Nothing on then-President Donald Trump, nothing on the Democratic presidential primaries — just op-eds and letters about California, Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley.
In our book about this experiment, we measured how banning national politics affected the topics on the opinion page and the attitudes of people in the Palm Springs area, and we found a dramatic change. Pieces about Trump dropped from one-third of all content to zero; mentions of political parties fell by more than half; and op-eds and letters about local issues like architectural preservation and traffic congestion increased.
This may sound trivial, but these were serious, contentious issues for the Palm Springs community at the time. One architectural landmark was at the center of a corruption scandal that culminated in an FBI raid on City Hall in 2015 and felony charges against the mayor at the time. Meanwhile, concern over traffic and the environmental impact from a plan to build a new downtown arena on the land of the Agua Caliente tribe spurred discussions on the city-tribe relationship.2 But importantly, these topics were not about Democrats and Republicans — they were about Palm Springs issues.
To measure whether this change in news coverage affected how people said they felt about members of the opposing political party, we fielded surveys in Palm Springs and Ventura — a city about 62 miles northwest of Los Angeles whose newspaper, the Ventura County Star, did not change its opinion section. According to our research, polarization slowed down in Palm Springs compared with Ventura, particularly among those who read the newspaper, know a lot about politics and participate in politics regularly.3 Polarization is a tough trend to slow down in American politics, but we found that The Desert Sun was able to do just that by changing one page of its paper per day. What’s more, per the paper’s internal tracking, online readership of opinion content nearly doubled during the local-only July.
The economics of local news makes experiments like The Desert Sun’s difficult to replicate, however. More than half of the daily newspapers in circulation in the U.S. are owned by a private equity firm or hedge fund, which infamously cuts staff and other costs as much as possible. In 2020, even The Desert Sun lost its longtime opinion editor, Al Franco, who accepted a buyout from the newspaper’s owner, Gannett, along with hundreds of its other newspaper employees nationwide.
The market is simply not providing local newspapers the resources they need to deliver the civic benefits they’re capable of, which raises the question as to what extent the government should step in to help. People have long debated whether freedom of the press means freedom from government assistance, but on this point, history is clear: Government policies like tax breaks and exemptions from some labor laws and minimum wage and overtime rules have benefited newspapers since the 18th century. And as such, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to find modern solutions to the local media industry’s current problems.
In March, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and John Kennedy of Louisiana co-sponsored the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.4 This bill, if passed, would empower news organizations to collectively bargain with tech companies with the aim of helping smaller local publications earn back the much-needed online advertising dollars currently going to Facebook and Google. In fact, even bolder policies have been proposed to help local news, such as giving direct payments to news organizations to hire reporters or offering Americans vouchers to spend on local nonprofit media.
Ultimately, the stakes for local journalism are high. If the current bipartisan efforts to assist local news become defined along party lines and fail, future generations may not be able to depend on local news as we know it, and if our research is any indication, America’s political divides will continue to deepen as a result.