A healthy local press may also mean a healthy local political process

April 15, 2019 | G. Michael Dobbs

Here is an interesting concept: if you have a healthy local press, you may also have a healthy local political process.

According to a story released by the Neiman Lab at Harvard University, “In a well-functioning system, citizens need to be actively engaged in their government and aware of decisions made by their elected representatives. Newspapers are a means of citizen engagement, and this study provides evidence of the importance of this link.”

The story cites a study by Cleveland State University Meghan Rubado and Jay Jennings of the University of Texas who examined mayoral election in cities where the local daily newspaper suffers cuts of staff and resources.

Here’s the abstract of the study, “Newspapers have faced extreme challenges in recent years due to declining circulation and advertising revenue. This has resulted in newspaper closures, staff cuts, and dramatic changes to the ways many newspapers cover local government, among other topics.

“This article argues that the loss of professional expertise in coverage of local government has negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.

“We test our theory using an original data set that matches 11 local newspapers in California to the municipalities they cover. The data show that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing had, on average, significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races.

“We also find suggestive evidence that lower staffing levels are associated with lower voter turnout.”

Joshua Benton of the Neiman Lab wrote, “So imagine a 10,000-circulation daily newspaper, and imagine it at two staffing levels: a robust 18-person newsroom or a skimpy 3-person one. According to Rubado and Jennings’ findings, that newspaper’s city would likely have about one additional mayoral candidate running if it was covered by that strong 18-person newsroom than by those three poor overworked souls.”

Now, the newspaper you’re reading is a weekly, not a daily, but it’s been our editorial philosophy for years to cover local government, including elections as comprehensively as we can. The reason is simple: it is our responsibility to give voters as much information as we are able to provide so the electorate can make an informed decision.

I have never made an endorsement of a candidate in my 17-plus years as managing editor. I never will. It does not serve the interest of readers to dictate to them.

I understand that local commercial TV news is not in the habit of reporting much about political races until an election night. Politics doesn’t fit into the model that many stations have of reporting crime, money issues and weather as its bedrock subjects.

The bottom line is to have more reporting, you need larger papers. To have larger newspapers you need more advertising. To have more advertising you need a larger responsive audience, which can be reduced if the newspaper has less of what people want: content. You also need a base of local businesses.

Weekly newspapers across the country have in many cases picked up the slack with the trouble daily papers have faced. The weekly newspapers have faced them as well, but not always on the same level.

Democracy thrives on information. Newspapers historically have played a huge role and can continue to do so even in the 21st Century.

Not a journalist

So on Facebook there has been an interesting argument about whether or not Wikileak’s Julian Assange is a “journalist.”

Some people have said he is because of the massive amount of information his organization put on the Web for the world to see. For them he is a hero.

Others, including me, believe journalism is much more than simply presenting raw classified data to the world. I understand Assange is a bomb-thrower and he clearly revels in the idea of randomly upsetting people, organizations and governments.

The way the information was obtained and leaked meant that Assange and his associates did not care what the consequences were in distributing information without context or verification.

I don’t have that luxury. I answer to a number of people, including most importantly our readers. Assange answers to no one.

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