Do you read a local newspaper? If you don’t, perhaps you should—new research by GWU professor Danny Hayes and American University professor Jennifer Lawless demonstrates that the local press can have a significant impact on the civic life of local citizens. Hayes describes his findings in the Washington Post:
…When we merge our newspaper data with survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we find that voters in districts with less news coverage know less about the candidates running for the House. For instance, as the volume of news coverage declines, citizens are less able to identify candidates as liberals or conservatives. They are also less likely to say that they will cast a ballot in the House contest.
… [L]ocal news contributes to citizens’ ability — or lack thereof — to form judgments about politicians. … We find that this is true not only for the least politically engaged voters but also those who are typically more attentive to politics. Where the news environment is impoverished, engagement is diminished for all citizens.
Hayes contrasts this to nationally-reported news, which—via its “vast expansion of news and entertainment options”—has actually perpetuated a political-involvement “gap,” as the less politically-interested merely watch ESPN or HGTV, while the political junkies soak up MSNBC and FOX News to their hearts’ content. There is little interest in or knowledge of local politics at all.
“This development has potentially profound implications,” writes Hayes. “To the extent that a knowledgeable and participatory citizenry is a marker of a healthy political system [read Alexis de Tocqueville for more on this], the demise of local news should raise concerns about the operation of electoral democracy. An anemic news environment makes it more difficult for citizens to hold their local representatives accountable.”
Hayes’ comments reminded me of some remarks made byNew York Times Magazine’sMark Leibovich at an event I attended a couple years ago, at which he encouraged young journalists to embrace “rootedness” and community, rather than seeking the popularity and charisma of Washington, D.C. “Being immersed in small communities gives one an exposure to how people interact, a more hands-on approach to things,” Leibovich said in response to an email on the subject. “Plus, I think it’s more interesting.”
But small-town reporting is hardly glamorous or financially rewarding—oftentimes, it’s tedious and uninteresting. So how do we keep the small press alive?
NPR shared some ideas on keeping newspapers alive in a 2012 news article: their advice regarding the importance of diversified and interesting digital ads is definitely worth considering—yet they note that, at the time, only 40 percent of newspapers were “devoting significant efforts to selling ‘smart’ or targeted advertising — the category widely predicted to eventually ‘dominate’ local markets, the study finds.” Developing a tech-savvy, targeted online presence is something that many local media sites are going to have to do in order to keep up with larger brands—and in order to keep drawing a younger audience.
But to grow their audience, it’s also important that a newspaper carves out its niche: be fully local, fully involved, with a strong reporting presence in its town/county. The success of this method is demonstrated by a column Bill Kauffman wrote last year about his town’s online newspaper, The Batavian:
The God Who fits people to places brought Howard Owens to Batavia. … The idea was to launch an online news site in a small city whose daily newspaper did not have a significant Internet presence. An obsessive grower of roses, Howard had visited the Cooperative Extension in Batavia and found a “small city that was surrounded by nothing but farmland. I liked that isolation.” He persuaded his boss to make this his journalistic laboratory. A year into the experiment, GateHouse bailed, selling The Batavianto Howard and his wife Billie.
Five years of 12-hour-a-day and seven-day-a-week workloads later, Owens has embedded The Batavian in the public mind. From his office on the second floor of the Masonic Temple on Main Street, Howard covers local government and politics, arts, culture, sports, business, crime, the natural world: all that is beautiful or ugly within his beat of Genesee County.
Owen’s experiment worked, as Kauffman notes with an anecdote at the beginning of the column: when anything happens in the town, people “check The Batavian” for news. But what this means practically is that Owens has to dedicate himself, 24/7, to his local beat. And this is why, though Kauffman and Owens both hope others will embrace and support “hyperlocal” news, they aren’t sure it will happen—“Most people don’t want to assume the risk and work that hard for something with no definitive payoff,” Owens says. “I believe the opportunity is there. Most small and mid-size cities are underserved for news by their existing local news organizations. Opportunity abounds for those willing to take the plunge.”
This takes us back full-circle to Leibovich’s advice, and the dilemma presented by Lawless and Hayes. We need smart, talented, driven reporters to “go home” and cover the local beat, to breathe life into state, regional, and town-centric newspapers. It is grueling, time-consuming work, often lacking the glamor or prestige of national news reporting. But it’s also incredibly fulfilling. It is about relationship: cultivating community through a developing awareness of one’s town or county, through a deepening understanding of the issues, concerns, and joys that make up its chief concerns.
This also means, though, that we need more news readers to do the difficult thing, and support their local paper: even though free news is available online, even though the New York Times may have better crosswords, even though many of us hate subscribing to things. The local press is worth keeping alive.