Voters suffer when local newspapers close

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When local newspapers shutter across the country, people rely more heavily on national media outlets that report political news primarily through the lens of the perennial two-party political conflict, researchers say.

The result is that these communities become increasingly polarized politically, which has broad implications for both voters and legislators.

“Residents of cities without sources of local news are losing their ability to hold their political representatives accountable in ways that encourage ethical and effective representation,” says Johanna Dunaway, professor of communication at Texas A&M University. “And the more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government.”

The study, which appears in the Journal of Communication, finds that local newspaper closures polarize voters and contribute to increases in straight-ticket, party-line voting.

Further, when defunct local newspapers leave a void, it creates opportunities for political parties to use tactics that replace objective sources of information with highly polarized perspectives.

Historically, voters recognize that many local issues fall outside political party ideology, and will cross party lines in local elections when legislators achieve positive results for their communities.

To cultivate this personal vote, legislators grant interviews and send press releases to their local newspapers to inform their constituents of their achievements. They make re-election appeals and claims of credit in their local media markets, and local reporters cover how they serve their districts to hold them accountable, Dunaway says.

But without local newspapers, communities lose the venue where legislators cultivate the personal vote. Residents of these communities rely more on national news outlets that only have the resources, at best, to comprehensively cover national governmental institutions and their leadership. The politicians at the state and local levels generally don’t appear on the radars of national news outlets at all.

As national media dominance—and political polarization—increases, legislators have more incentive to respond to the needs and preferences of their political parties than to those of their districts.

Further, the reality is that these legislators already often consider how national media will portray their actions and responses more than they consider how their constituents will receive them, the researchers say. This means residents of counties without local news sources lose influence with their legislators because of the increasing political polarization.

“Replacing local media with national alternatives and the resulting increase in political polarization has broad implications for everyone,” Dunaway says. “If the information we get about politics is reduced to national party politics, the local issues that affect us most will be neglected by voters and politicians alike.”

Additional researchers are from Louisiana State University and Colorado State University.

Source: Texas A&M University