Monday, March 16, 2009

Newspapers do matter, Princeton study finds

The shutdown of a newspaper has an immediate and measurable impact on local political engagement, according to a new study by economists at Princeton University.

Assessing the consequences of the closing of the Cincinnati Post at the end of 2007, the researchers found that fewer people voted in subsequent elections, fewer candidates ran in opposition to the incumbents and that, as a result, the incumbents had a better chance of being returned to office.

“If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates and accountability for incumbents are important to democracy, we side with those who lament” the decline of newspapers, said economists Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido, who conducted the study.

As a onetime reporter and copyeditor who forsook journalism for a PhD in economics, Schulhofer-Wohl might be accused of having a soft spot for newspapers.

But he and his colleague ran a detailed, hard-nosed analysis of news coverage and voting patterns to determine that the political landscape in the Kentucky counties across the Ohio River from Cincinnati changed significantly after the Post ceased publication on Dec. 31, 2007.

“This paper offers a case study of the consequences of closing a newspaper,” wrote the authors here in describing their findings. “The closing was particularly important in the northern Kentucky suburbs, where the Post historically dominated circulation and, as we document, provided more than 80% of the combined local news coverage” between itself and the surviving Cincinnati Enquirer.

With the Post out of the picture, said the economists, “its absence appears to have made local elections less competitive along several dimensions: incumbent advantage, voter turnout and the number of candidates for office.”

Even though the Post sold only about 27,000 copies daily vs. 200,000 for the Enquirer, the Post contributed to making “local politics more vibrant” than they are today, concluded the study.

“By revealing incumbents' misdeeds or making it easier for challengers to get their message out, a newspaper may reduce incumbent advantage,” said the researchers. “Newspaper stories could also raise interest in politics, inspiring more people to vote or run for office.”

Although competing publications or other media such as TV, radio and blogs may take up some of the slack when a newspaper closes, said the researchers, “none of these appears so far to have fully filled the Post's role in municipal politics in northern Kentucky.”

24 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Academics are almost as biased as journalists.

I trust neither.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Anonymous posters are idiots. I don't trust them either.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Wow, Anonymous #1. Who do you trust, exactly?

9:04 AM  
Blogger KennaGriffin said...

This is ONE of my biggest concerns about the current state of the newspaper industry. As newspapers cease publishing who becomes the watchdog. It seems that this research study would suggest no one does. It terrifies me. It also saddens me that industry executives are so quick to give up a "product" (if you must look at it that way) that has severed the people for hundreds of years.

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Luke said...

Poster 1 must be an incumbent

9:37 AM  
Anonymous Tom in Cincy said...

Some information to help explain The Post's Northern Kentucky influence: Despite the lopsided circulation across the entire Cincinnati metropolitan area, The Post's circulation in fact led the Enquirer's in Northern Kentucky (thanks to its targeted coverage) until perhaps the last year of its existence. It is no surprise that the effects of its demise would be strong there.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Anyone who lives in Northern Kentucky knows this is true. The closing of The Post has left this region with a terrible alternative in daily newspaper coverage. The Post stayed on top of everything, particularly politics. The Enquirer has one reporter dedicated to politics and he's spread so thin with his other interests he just can't keep up.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm a bit biased, as a former Postie, but I think the study sadly underscores the future with fewer newspapers dotting the country. It's obvious here in Northern Ky. -- where readers are caught in a Catch 22... not really considered part of Cincinnati, so the Enqy doesn't spend much effort covering the area and not "really part of Kentucky" by the larger papers to the south (Lexington Herald-Leader, Louisville Courier-Journal).

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Dave D. said...

..KennaGriffin, I believe you typed a greater truth than you know. Yes, the "product" has "severed the people for hundreds of years."

10:11 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Paul, Tom (and others): I would like to be able to contact you for advice on follow-up research. Please e-mail me at sschulho@princeton.edu if you are willing. Best, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl

10:41 AM  
Blogger Crisatunity said...

Didn't Cincinnati elect Jerry Springer Mayor way back in 1977? With a newspaper, Cincy wasn't doing it right.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Melissa Bower said...

Once again, you've hit the nail on the head by bringing up this study, Mr. Mutter.

I see this issue often in areas where I live in Kansas. We have a well educated population throughout our state. However, they don't actively seek out civic information they need to know. Instead, they are fed ideas by radicals (either conservative or liberal) who demand they take action and/or share in those radical beliefs. Lack of good investigative reporting and a strong communication medium has torn apart my state.

Remember hearing about Kansas not wanting to teach evolution in the classrooms? Well, that's an oversimplification. The reality is that science teachers in Kansas are always going to prepare students for success, which includes teaching evolution. And our religious leaders are always going to promote morality among our young people, which includes questioning human origins. What was purely a radicalist idea became law for a short time because the general population allowed megalomaniac politicians to control our state. Journalists did not dig deeply enough into the issue and those who did were ignored.

I could think of a hundred other instances in which Kansans were misinformed or not notified about a topic that led to civic decline. Understanding over water rights. Opposition to wind farms. Lack of accounting oversight to major universities. And so on.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Bob K said...

It's strange that the Cincy Post is one of the examples.

Historically, the more Democratically-oriented of Cincinnati's last two dailies, the Post closed its doors in late 2007. Yet in the very next election, 50% of the city's incumbent Congressional delegation was removed from office. Republican Steve Chabot was defeated by Democrat Steve Driehaus, even in the absence of a boost from the more left of the papers.

I know it's just one counterexample, but since the study relies on only two newspapers to draw its conclusions, and apparently ignores the couterexample on the northern side of the Ohio River, it seems a rather glaring omission.

(Full disclosure: thirty years ago I used to deliver the Cincinnati Post in that very congressional district.)

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Bob K said...

Sorry, I thought there were two papers named in the study. Not just the Post. Where is the study posted?

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who do I trust? Bloggers. Random people on the Internet.

They represent a wide variety of views, not only those sanctioned by the anointed journalistic elite. Some of them are even experts in their fields. They link directly to supporting information and to each other.

And they do a wonderful job of exposing newspapers and other media for the biased, often incompetent practitioners that they are.

This Internet will replace newspapers, and it will be much, much better than newspapers could ever hope to be.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Yup. Anonymous is an idiot.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Melissa said...

I believe there are certain things in life that are more important than simply making a profit - the newspaper industry is 'priceless' regarding the value it brings to my life. Thank you for sharing this insightful information / research.

Melissa

6:34 PM  
Blogger kristina. said...

Just a thought:

Can bloggers and people of the internet expose happenings on the political front like Watergate? And more recently, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center neglect scandal?

Do they have the time? The funds? The resources? The access? These things take months, sometimes years to expose and many, many resources.

Bloggers may have the time, but I question access to records and the resources to go about uncovering great scandals such as these.

Furthermore, there are so many more scandals on a large and small scale that local newspapers around the world have exposed.

I just want to know who will be the TRUE watchdog over local and national politics if cities are left without any newspaper or true news source at all.

Uncovering scandals such as Watergate and the Walter Reed Medical Center make our world a better place. There's no denying that.

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading your blog and all the posts up to this point it occurs to me that maybe the decline of some (many?) newspapers are a symptom of a greater disease - ambivalence to the way we are governed. Unless some political decision is directly impacting us on a personal level, maybe most Americans are too busy making a living (or being entertained with celebrity news) to care much about what their government is doing as long as it leaves them alone. When the newspaper was a semi-monopoly, it could force-feed citizens what they should know instead of what they wanted to know. Even that wasn’t a very attractive situation. Maybe we are destined to be ruled by a political elite elected by an active minority of voters (we may already be there and are just in denial). – B. Wood

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Tom in Cincy said...

To Bob K: It's true The Post made its reputation as the most-left (at least staunchly pro-labor) paper in town -- that when there were three of them, too. By its later years, however, its opinion pages were far more conservative, even somewhat libertarian; they endorsed several Democrats, but several Republicans, too, including G.W. Bush in 2004.

8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can bloggers and people of the internet expose happenings on the political front like Watergate?

Bloggers exposed Rathergate, the attempted use of fake documents by mainstream journalists in order to try to swing the 2004 election.

Bloggers were exposing John Edwards' affair while the LA Times and NY Times were actively covering it up.

Bloggers like Michael Yon reported on the progress toward victory in Iraq, while journalists missed it.

Bloggers did original research on Obama's involvement with Bill Ayers and the Annenberg Trust, which was buried by the media. Obama was elected without being vetted by the mainstream at all, and the inevitable disaster is already beginning to unfold.

Bloggers do the work that newspapers are unwilling or unable to do.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati, I can tell you that it was a very sad day when The Post printed its last issue. The Enquirer, for some reason, thinks it's a national paper. There are AP articles in it three days after I read them online. I rarely read The Enquirer - it's more of a skim. It saddens me that my city cannot produce a quality newspaper.

9:18 AM  
Blogger James said...

I don't know who 'Anonymous' is, but everyone and their mother who has a blog thinks they're a journalist.

With a couple of exceptions, bloggers would not do the type of investigative reporting required that an experienced journalist would. I'm talking looking at public records, conducting interviews and the like.

There's an old saying, "Once the cat's away, the mice come out to play." Same thing with the newspaper staffs.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To BobK:
I don't think it's surprising that the closing of The Post had little to no impact on Cincinnati politics. It's safe to say that the Cincinnati edition wasn't nearly as dominant or relevant in Cincy as the Ky edition was in Kentucky. The Post always concentrated more on Ky than the Enquirer. Hell, they had a statehouse reporter stationed in Frankfort until the very end. The Enquirer never did that. (For full disclosure, I'm also a former Ky Postie.)

7:07 PM  

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