The Troubling Causes and Consequences of Diminished Local News

When Mitt Romney announced last week that he would not embark on a third run for the White House, it was virtually impossible to miss. Above-the-fold headlines, breaking news alerts, and countless online sources carried the news. After the announcement, political junkies could satisfy their appetites well into the weekend, feasting on delicious broadcast, cable, and social media commentary about the causes and consequences of Romney’s decision.

For the most part, these circumstances characterize how national politics gets covered today. They also stand in stark contrast to an important shift in the media landscape happening at the local level. While the number of outlets covering national politics has expanded dramatically, local news organizations have struggled to stay afloat. Newspapers across the country have folded, reporting resources have been slashed, and most online sites specializing in local news have failed to gain traction.

Given that local newspapers are virtually the only venue where local politics—such as House races—receive meaningful attention, the impoverishment of local news carries profound implications. Most notably, as we demonstrate in a forthcoming Journal of Politics article, it drives down citizens’ political knowledge and participation. Our findings also suggest that polarization, by leaving so few House contests competitive, may make it more difficult for citizens to hold their local officials accountable.

How do we arrive at these conclusions? We identified the largest-circulating newspaper within each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts. Then, we conducted an in-depth content analysis of U.S. House campaign coverage in the month leading up to the 2010 general election. Finally, we merged our newspaper data with survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Based on our analysis of more than 6,000 news stories and a national survey of nearly 50,000 citizens, we found—even after accounting for campaign spending, education, partisanship, and other factors that contribute to a voter’s ability to make judgments about politicians—that reductions in news meant declines in engagement. Voters in districts with less campaign coverage were less able to evaluate their House incumbent and not as capable of identifying the candidates vying for office as liberal or conservative. They were also less likely to report that they planned to vote in the House election.

If citizen knowledge and participation depend on the media environment, then how can the news be enriched? Numerous scholars and observers have suggested various remedies: overhauling journalistic practices, boosting reporting resources by establishing partnerships with foundations and nonprofits, and finding innovative benefactors with deep pockets. These efforts could not hurt, and they might even help improve political journalism.

But our data indicate that the biggest driver of the decline in local news is the competitiveness of elections. Competitive races saw approximately three times as many stories (about one every day) as landslide contests did. When elections are uncompetitive, the media ignore them because they simply aren’t newsworthy. When contests are nail-biters, they generate more coverage. Thus, the most effective route to reinvigorating local campaign coverage—and improving citizen engagement—is likely a renaissance in the competitiveness of House elections.

Such a renaissance seems unlikely any time soon because the decline in competitiveness is principally a product of party polarization. By the 2014 midterms, only about 4% of House races were considered toss-ups. In nearly all cases, the composition of a district allows us to predict quite accurately how a race will end before the campaign even begins.

We’ve known for quite some time that polarization hinders Congress’s ability to pass legislation, and that it can generate ill will between partisans in the public. Now it is also clear that, by often producing uncompetitive elections that impoverish the political information environment, polarization chips away at the foundation of democracy by making it more difficult for citizens to gain the information that would help them hold their local elected officials accountable. This is all the more problematic in an era in which there are fewer and fewer local news sources to serve as the public’s watchdog.