Summer 2010

Localized Pain

– The Wilson Quarterly

Hand-wringing abounds over the future of newspapers.

Hand-wringing abounds over the future of newspapers. With advertising revenues shrinking, how will they manage to stay in business? Who will fill their role of reporting on political affairs? Lee Shaker, a researcher in Princeton University’s Department of Politics, cautions that the issues are different for national and local news—and the outlook for local coverage is particularly bleak.

Many citizens get their local news from friends and neighbors, not from newspapers directly, but the news circulated in social networks tends to trace back to published papers, Shaker writes. A shuttered local paper could silence much of that chatter. Already, several major local newspapers have shut down completely (e.g., The Rocky Mountain News in Denver) or moved to an online-only business model (e.g., The Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

The people who follow local news tend to have a slightly different demographic profile than those who are knowledgeable about national affairs. While both groups tend to be more educated, older, and wealthier than the average citizen, national-news aficionados are also disproportionately male and white. Using data from a survey of 1,001 Philadelphians in the weeks following the 2007 mayoral race, Shaker found that on matters of local concern, men and women, blacks and whites, all tended to have roughly equivalent levels of knowledge.

It’s not just local newspapers that are threatened by the changing media environment. Shaker writes that the “near-infinite array of media choices” forces local television news “into constant and direct competition with better-funded, more polished options,” including, of course, the bounty of non-news entertainment available. In 1993, more than three-quarters of survey respondents reported regularly watching local television news, but in 2008 just over half did. Among Philadelphia residents, those with cable television (more than three-quarters of respondents) tended to know less about local politics than those without such access, presumably because of cable TV’s many alluring alternatives to local news broadcasts. Cable did not have the same negative effect on viewers’ knowledge about national political issues.

The first order of business for local news media outlets is simply staying alive. But even if they manage to survive, Shaker warns, it’s possible no one will pay them much attention.

THE SOURCE: “Citizens’ Local Political Knowledge and the Role of Media Access” by Lee Shaker, in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2009.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons