Do Newspapers Matter?
Cincinnati was long a two-newspaper town, and since 1977, the Post and the larger Enquirer were published in tandem under a joint operating agreement. Gannett, the parent of the Enquirer, decided to part ways with the Post in 2004. Scripps, the owner of the Post, resolved to soldier on, but ultimately surrendered after losing 90 percent of its circulation over the course of 30 years on December 31, 2007. The Post was widely distributed across the river from Cincinnati in Northern Kentucky, and Schulhofer and Garrido sought to measure the impact of its closing on politics in these Cincinnati suburbs.
Other researchers have shown that cities with high newspaper readeship are less likely to breed corruption. Cities with daily or weekly newspapers are less likely to reelect incumbents, and the endorsements of these broadsheets actually impact voters' decisions at the ballot boxes. Schulhofer and Garrido find similar results in the Kentucky counties, as incumbents were not just more likely to claim victory, but also to face an opponent in areas where Post readership was the highest. More people did go to the polls in 2008, but the authors attribute this to the "unusually high turnout" in 2008, and when this anomoly is controlled, drops in relative turnout in former Post-dominant municipalities.
Upon closer inspection, the authors' data is a bit sparse given that only one presidential election has taken place since the Post closed, and much of the Cincinnati area has yet to hold local elections, the crux of their argument. The excitement that President Obama generated atop the ticket makes it difficult to swallow the argument that turnout was depressed in 2008. Indeed, other factors may be in play in the Kentucky counties at the center of this study given that they lie in a bright red Republican state, yet share the same metropolitan area with a city in one of the most fiercely contested states.
These qualifications aside, the authors promise to continue to gather data to further prove their point, and my guess is that they are on to something with their preliminary conclusions. Devoted newspaper readers and champions of the watchdog role of the press have long warned of the impact that newspaper closings and downsized newsrooms would have on the local democracies they enable through the provision of a common base of information to the citizenry. A century ago, 689 American cities had competing daily newspapers. At the beginning of 2009, we were down to 15, and Denver recently dropped from the mix, soon to be followed by Tucson, and Seattle arrived there this week for all intents and purposes when the Post-Intelligencer assumed a vastly scaled back online-only model.
One can only hope that the remaining dozen two-newspaper towns can hold on during these turbulent times, and that the remaining solo acts like the Cincinnat Enquirer do their part in fostering the ever-fragile engagement of local citizens.