Each did what so many others could not: overshadowed Donald Trump. Stories on each of these topics received larger pictures and bigger stories in the Stevens Point Journal, The Gazette of Janesville, and the Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee, respectively, than did stories about Trump on the same day.
In the runup to today’s Republican primary in Wisconsin, the front pages of the state’s local newspapers showed few signs of the hand-wringing currently consuming the national media — a “reckoning” about campaign coverage caused by Trump’s disproportionate share of televised attention and the accusation that the media created his candidacy. In terms of proportional television coverage and the national news cycle, there can be little doubt that Trump has “hacked the media”: Trump has earned an estimated $1.9 billion in free media, representing 62 percent of candidate-focused coverage in the Republican race. But coverage of the GOP race in local newspapers — a source of campaign information for 29 percent of voters nationally, according to Pew Research Center — looks very different.
Local newspapers remain important in their communities, setting the local news agenda and influencing the news cycle more than local television. Presidential campaigns attempt to attract local coverage because people trust their local news, and information received from trusted media sources can both persuade and mobilize voters.
So did Trump enjoy the same consistent prominence statewide in Wisconsin that he does nationally? I collected the front pages1 of Wisconsin newspapers2 each day from Monday, March 21, to Monday, April 4, and coded each for headlines about Trump and stories containing pictures of Trump.3 Here’s how much coverage Trump received:
Overall, Trump stories appeared on just over 25 percent of front pages in Wisconsin. Trump did not visit Wisconsin until his March 29 rally in Janesville, and the local newspapers gave him little front-page space until then. The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison produced a few Trump headlines, perhaps because state capital newspapers tend to cover politics more thoroughly than other local papers. Once Trump’s rally was announced, his coverage increased to around 20 percent of statewide front pages from the 26th to the 29th. His Janesville and Milwaukee appearances made quite a bit of news, and were followed by appearances in Appleton and De Pere on the 30th, leading to temporary dominance of the state’s front pages: 75 percent of newspapers in the sample covered Trump on March 30th, slowly decreasing to 56 percent on March 31 and 37.5 percent on April 1.
Trump did not appear in Wisconsin again until April 2 in Rothschild, Eau Claire and Racine, and his local coverage suffered in the meantime. Following the April 2 rallies and an April 3 appearance in West Allis, Trump’s coverage shot back up in the April 3 Sunday papers when he received coverage in 80 percent of newspapers sampled. On Monday, April 4 — the critical day before the primary — Trump’s coverage fell once more to only one of 16 newspapers sampled, despite three rallies scheduled for the day (La Crosse, Milwaukee and Superior).
National political reporters may find it difficult to escape the continuous and deafening Trump news cycle on cable news and Twitter, and it is easy for the national media to assume that voters are experiencing the same campaign that they are. This analysis shows that local media seem to be covering Trump as they would other candidates, and are staying true to their primary purpose: reporting on local events of interest. Over the past two weeks, Wisconsinites most often saw Trump in their news when he was in the state. By leaving Wisconsin on March 31 and April 1, Trump lost some of his momentum in the local media at precisely the time when the state’s voters were more likely to turn to local coverage.
Check out our live coverage of the Wisconsin primary elections.