No News Is Bad News for Civil Discourse

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When’s the last time you read your local newspaper? And, no, I’m not counting the New York Times or the Washington Post. I mean a locally published paper that focuses on local events. Chances are, even if you live in a suburb or a small town, you don’t read the paper too often. Your town might not even have one. And that absence, according to a study described this week in Scientific American, might be an overlooked cause of political polarization.

In an earlier account of their research, the authors remind us that in 2016, “more voters cast straight party-line ballots than at any point in the past century.” As recently as 1992, more than one out of three states split their ballots, electing a senator of a different party from that which won the state’s electoral votes. In 2016, not a single state did so.

So what does the death of local newspapers have to do with this phenomenon? The authors — Matthew P. Hitt, Joshua Darr and Johanna Dunaway — compared federal election results in counties where the local newspaper closed between 2009 and 2012 with results in a list of “statistically indistinguishable” counties where papers hadn’t closed. They searched for ticket-splitting — counties where one party’s candidate won the presidential ballot and the other party’s candidate won the senatorial ballot. They found that the counties that had experienced a closure were 1.9 percent more likely to split their votes.

This might not sound like much, but as the authors note: “This difference is more than enough to swing an election outcome: in 2018, the U.S. House races in Minnesota’s 1st district, Utah’s 4th district and Illinois’s 13th district were all decided by less than that margin.”

The authors also studied 2012 election results in counties that lost their local papers in 2013 or 2014. This time they found no difference between those counties’ voting behavior and the behavior of counties that did not lose their papers. Thus, they write, “the loss of the paper itself likely caused the changes we observed in voting behavior.”

With the local paper gone, voters are more likely to turn to national outlets, which tend to emphasize partisan conflict. And yet, intriguingly, the authors found no evidence that the loss of a local paper caused “ballot roll-off,” where residents cast votes for high-profile offices but leave the ballot blank lower down. This means, they suggest, that even without a local paper, voters believed that they had enough information to decide on local races. And although the authors don’t say so, the clear implication is that the party-line ballot is increasingly extending down into local races.

Ironically, the new study arrives at the same time as a report from the Pew Research Center detailing the public’s attitude toward local news. To be specific, people say they like local news and they want more of it. But what’s the bit of local news they want most? The weather — the one thing they can easily and quickly discover without consulting any sort of local source. Only 17 percent say that they often consult local daily papers for news. (Local television news seems to be thriving, but its coverage is necessarily limited to a few big stories, and its revenue is highly cyclical, because a lot of it comes from selling ... campaign ads.)

Hitt, Darr and Dunaway suggest that local news might survive and even thrive online, and one hopes that this turns out to be true. But there are reasons to be skeptical. The newspaper, for all its glories, was never anything more than a transitional technology. In their heyday, newspapers delivered far more information than anyone could or realistically would even want to consume. The companies that owned the papers had no good way to discriminate among their customers. The New York Times delivered the same product to people who wanted the foreign affairs headlines and those who would rather work the crossword puzzle. Despite constant reader surveys, publishers could never be quite sure who preferred the sports page to the editorials.

Consequently, when we speak of balkanization of the news, what we’re really talking about is people separating into reading groups. And these groups are based on preferences that probably predate the technology that enables their creation. Those of us who write for a living might prefer a world in which public conversation was still curated by wise old editors, but that world’s not returning. Besides, those wise old editors had their biases too.

On the other hand, the demise of the local paper is a somewhat different phenomenon. People might well want to consume news about their local communities, as the Pew surveys say. But it’s difficult to find a model that efficiently delivers it to them. The nationalization of political attention is going to make it more and more difficult for most people, unless they try very hard, to get much information about what their local zoning board might be up to. And the result of an online search is likely to be information from a small organization with a limited staff that can cover only bits and pieces.

No doubt local news outlets would become important again if people had more of a sense of a stake in local governance. But we’re not likely to devolve much power onto local communities anytime soon. This means we’ll continue to lose local papers. And if this study is right, it also means that our politics are likely to get more polarized.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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