Why print’s death throes deal democracy a body blow

23rd May, 2009

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that newspapers, at least in their printed form, are dying out. True, almost half of US adults still read a daily newspaper, but that figure is down from more than 80 per cent in 1964. The most obvious impact has been on local competition: a century ago, nearly 700 US cities had more than one daily paper; now, only about a dozen still enjoy the privilege. And this year has already seen the loss of the print editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and the Citizen of Tucson.

All this is despite America’s long-standing Newspaper Preservation Act, which in 1970 gave distressed local newspapers an exemption from competition laws, allowing them to form business alliances, fix prices to advertisers and subscribers, and prop each other up. The act is evidently not enough to keep competition alive.

The internet, of course, is both a cause of this trend and, perhaps, the reason it may not matter much. Publishers are more worried about the loss of advertising revenue than readership. Newspapers flourished by bringing together local advertisers and local readers, but in an internet age, that no longer looks like such a difficult trick.

But while the internet is chipping away at print’s foundations, it also provides an amazing range of alternative sources of information. Journalists and the nostalgic may wring their hands, but should anyone else care? There has never been a wider range of opinion and analysis, available to anyone with an internet connection.

Yet new research by two Princeton-based economists, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido, suggests that we should all be nervous about the trend. They studied what happened when The Cincinnati Post closed at the end of 2007. The answer: local politics suffered. In the suburbs of Cincinnati where the Post had the strongest presence, fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the election after the paper folded, voter turnout fell, and incumbents grew more likely to win re-election.

This may not surprise economists. Matthew Gentzkow of the University of Chicago concluded in 2006 that, in crowding out radio and newspapers, television was a substantial contributor to falls in voter turnout and in the typical person’s political knowledge, as measured by questionnaire. (Gentzkow’s statistical method relies on the fact that television was introduced to different regions at different times.) A study from 2000, co-authored by the Princeton academic Alícia Adserà, found that those US states with higher newspaper circulation also had less corruption. The same was true when the authors compared countries, although in each case it is hard to be sure about the direction of causation.

There is no doubt about causation in the case of The Cincinnati Post. The Post’s date of closure was all but predestined in 1977, when a 30-year joint venture with the Cincinnati Enquirer was established with an expiry date of December 31 2007. (As an evening newspaper, the Post had been losing readers for decades.) Five years ago, the Enquirer announced that it would not be renewing the joint venture and the Post’s fate was sealed. This makes the statistical analysis more persuasive, because it means that the closure date was not determined by some other factor – such as a sudden local recession in Cincinnati – which might also have affected local politics.

It seems that neither blogs nor online news sources serve the same role in Cincinnati’s political life as The Cincinnati Post. That may change, but the trouble is that, with some glorious exceptions, blogs seem to be heavy on opinion and analysis, light on reporting. Analysis is valuable, but is it enough?

Also published at ft.com.

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