The Demise of Local News and the Rise of National Partisanship

Scholars argue that the shifting media landscape is largely to blame for our political crisis.

Apropos my previous post, communication scholars Matthew P. Hitt, Joshua Darr, and Johanna Dunaway have a fascinating essay in Scientific American titled “Why Losing Our Newspapers Is Breaking Our Politics.”

The past few decades have been similarly tragic for American local media: longstanding newspapers, big and small, have closed in unprecedented numbers; Americans are turning away from local news sources and towards online and nationally televised programs to learn about politics; and even local television news is focusing on national partisanship and politics, as Sinclair Broadcasting acquires more affiliates.

At the same time, American voters and political elites are more polarized than ever. Republicans and Democrats occupy not only their own ideological camps, but also their own sets of basic facts, regardless of whether those facts rooted in reality. American politics is trapped in a feedback loop that reinforces polarization in the mass public: media coverage of polarization increases citizens’ dislike of the opposite party, and new research shows that people go beyond relying on party cues as a cognitive shortcut: They consider partisanship a central part of their identity and put effort into expressing it. For example, evangelical Christians tend to identify as conservative Republicans, but recent work shows that partisans actually sort themselves into the religious affiliation that matches their politics.

There are no doubt many reasons for the rise of partisanship, but our research, using voting data from across the country over a four year period, recently uncovered an important one: the loss of local newspapers. As local newspapers disappear, citizens increasingly rely on national sources of political information, which emphasizes competition and conflict between the parties. Local newspapers, by contrast, serve as a central source of shared information, setting a common agenda. Readers of local newspapers feel more attached to their communities. Unless something is done, our politics will likely become ever more contentious and partisan as the media landscape consolidates and nationalizes.

Others have been making similar arguments for years. But the methodology of their study is particularly telling:

To measure the effect of newspaper closures, we focused on split-ticket voting: when voters cast their ballot in favor of, for example, a presidential candidate from one party and a senatorial candidate from another. In the 2016 election, not a single state elected a Senator from one party and cast its electoral college votes for the opposite-party presidential candidate. We wanted to know if communities that experienced a newspaper closure split their tickets less than others, showing that the loss of localized information contributes to polarized political behavior and outcomes.  We collected data on newspapers closures in the United States from 2009-2012, a time when 110 papers were shuttered.

We then measured the percentage of votes cast for the Democratic and Republican candidates for president and Senate in every American county, allowing us to compare the level of split-ticketing in newspaper closure counties to the level in areas that had not experienced a closure. We used a procedure called genetic matching to construct a set of 77 comparison counties. These counties were statistically indistinguishable from the counties that did experience a newspaper closure on a host of important variables: population, income, education, broadband penetration, racial demographics, and more. Counties with a closure split their tickets about 1.9 percent less than the comparison group. This difference is more than enough to swing an election outcome: in 2018, the U.S. House races in Minnesota’s 1st district, Utah’s 4th district and Illinois’s 13th district were all decided by less than that margin.

An additional analysis increased our confidence in our findings. We measured split-ticket voting in the 2012 election for counties that lost a newspaper in 2013 and 2014 and compared these post-2012 closure counties to a comparison set of counties, using the same matching procedure. We found no differences this time, indicating that the loss of the paper itself likely caused the changes we observed in voting behavior.

Ticket-splitting certainly seems a reasonable proxy for partisan identity. While I must confess not to know much more about genetic matching than the link provides, it strikes me as a perfectly plausible technique for controlling for external factors.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be considered is directionality. That is, it might be that the sort of communities that can’t support a local newspaper are more likely to be partisan. Still, the fact that the communities exhibited less ticket-splitting in the next cycle is at least a strong suggestion as to which direction the effects flow.

More problematically, the study doesn’t really seem to control for changes in the overall political ecosystem. Over times, our parties have simply become better sorted. That is, even twenty years ago, there were a significant number of Southern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans who were much more in tune with their constituencies than the presidential candidates put forth by their respective parties. In that environment, it was much easier to vote for “the man, not the party” and split the ticket. Nowadays, the number of Senators, in particular, who match that description can easily be counted on one hand. And, even then, it tends to take the nomination of a particularly egregious candidate by the “natural” party for the state (say, a pederast) to make ticket-splitting a viable option.

Regardless, even if thriving local newspapers and local television news programs could reverse the trend, it’s not obvious what should be done about it. There have been attempts by angel investors to reinvigorate the local news market, thus far without much success. Despite the theory of our founding that most political power should reside at the local and state levels because citizens are likely to be more familiar with the politicians and issues closest to them, nation-level politics and politicians have dominated our interest as long as I can remember. Arguably, the shift happened during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, where the combination of national crises (the Great Depression and World War II), a charismatic leader, and the advent of national broadcasting made the President a daily figure in Americans’ lives. While not all of his successors shared his talent for connecting with the public, they’ve all had the technical means of commanding their attention.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    I recall years ago reading an account of George H. W. Bush’s behavior as a Congressman. Described him as now and again returning to Houston to campaign as an extreme conservative. Then he’d return to DC and do whatever he felt best. He saw campaigning and governing as two pretty much unrelated activities. In the media environment of the time, he could get away with it. Houston media weren’t interested in either undermining Bush or reporting the minutia of national politics.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    The internet ought to be able to serve the “long tail” represented by local and regional news well, but it doesn’t seem to be at the moment. I’m very curious about why that might be.

    Chief among my suspects are the algorithmic feed of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (also Google+, but it’s dying any day now). Since the demise of the RSS reader, users do not have control of what they look at every day, and the algo feed shows them stuff that is “hot” but not necessarily what they might have chosen to look at.

    Lots and lots of topical YouTube channels exist. I’m at a loss to explain why there aren’t local/regional news channels. Maybe the powers are being stubborn? Maybe there isn’t enough content on a regular basis to have a “Bellingham Channel”? Maybe the old news concept of being all things to all people just doesn’t appeal to audiences?

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    @gVOR08: Yeah, you are highlighting a really important development, which is a consequence of disintermediation.

    People who care can now find out what a politician does pretty much every day in Washington. The politicians have figured this out, and have responded to it. Which means there’s never a moment where the party extremists and primary voters aren’t watching them.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s an interesting entree into the larger question of WTF is happening not just to the media landscape, but to human civilization more broadly. The human brain evolved to wander the savannah searching for carrion, insects, roots and fruits. It adapted to hunting, to tribal life, to fire, and stuck right there for more than 100,000 years.

    Then, more or less overnight in historical terms, we began to do agriculture and animal husbandry and to build cities. As Dave Schuler points out from time to time, what we know of human history ain’t much, but we know that until very, very recently, most humans still tilled the soil. The overwhelming bulk of h. sapiens in earlier times never saw the world beyond the next village. Most didn’t read or write. Then, in the blink of an eye: literacy, books, magazines, newspapers, the telegraph, the telephone, TV, satellites, the internet, social media. As late as the 17th century something like 80% of Europeans could not read. The time from then to know isn’t a tiny fraction of the human race’s existence.

    We ask our human brains – brains evolved to fight, flee and recognize ripe fruit – to do astounding things. For instance, we expect humans to race around at 70 mph in a vehicle surrounded by other vehicles, all within seconds of catastrophic injury and death, and to do it while listening to an audio book, or talking to the office on a cell.

    We are not evolved to cope with the world as it has become. The pace of change, particularly the mind-bending speed with which the iPhone has connected us 24/7 to everyone and everything simultaneously, is I have long suspected, too much for a large percentage of h. sapiens.

    I’m in a hotel lobby in Los Gatos at the moment, and with my iPhone I can open a camera and see who has come or gone from my home. I know that at the new house we have a skunk walk through the yard every night, I have video. I can access news from everywhere. I can talk to anyone, and anyone can talk to me. And this has always struck me as a milestone: I will never be truly lost, or out of touch, or incapable of getting an answer, unless my battery dies. None of that is normal. None of that is built in to the human brain.

  5. James Pearce says:

    I don’t think the decline of local news is all that big of a deal for electoral politics, but it has been a disaster for other things. There was a shooting last year in my neighborhood that left 2 people dead and two others, a cop and a child, wounded. The police released almost no information on the crime and neither did the newspaper. It just seems like there’s this idea that journalism is what happens when you write down what the official says at the press conference and that’s about it and, like….

    That’s stenography, not journalism.

  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Hey, you’re about 10 miles from me at the moment! [waves]

    Our brains do a pretty darn good job of guiding a cage of steel at 70mph. Probably about as good a job as we did recognizing fruit. Remember that monkeys sometimes fall out of trees.

    What we are terrible at is fairness. The Us/Them dichotomy is baked in pretty deeply, and it’s hard to get around it. So hard that I think the best answer is to build more groups of “Us”, rather than try to break some down.

    And that’s why the local/regional program is important. It provides alternate groups of “Us” for people to think about and relate to.

    One of the best ways to reduce racial tensions, for instance, is for groups to engage in joint projects – to do work together. We want this, but politicians and media types, as a general rule, do not. Because conflict is higher-energy.

    Honestly, this is beginning to seem off-topic, but I’m not sure whether it is or not.

  7. JKB says:

    There’s an interesting article at American Interest, “The End of the New Deal Era—and the Coming Realignment” that surveys the, by the author’s count, five remaking of American political parties. His premise is that we are at the point where the last remake with the New Deal is becoming untenable and unresponsive to modern needs. Can’t say I agree in detail, but the overall arc is food for thought.

    I’ve thought for a while, and with the election of Trump it went hot, we are in a battle among the “intellectuals” over who will dominate the ideas. Blogs, social media, self-publishing routed around the old gatekeepers of publishers and magazine editors. The media had also risen as a gatekeeper since the New Deal with their choke hold on who got editorials, book reviews, talk show invites, etc. to promote their books. They could make or break an idea in the popular conversation. No longer as authors can route around and ideas can take off without so much as a by your leave. This fits with the desperate efforts to suppress disfavored ideas by protest and social media censorship. Sadly, our intellectuals do not favor open debate of ideas or reliance on logic and reason to destroy what is considered offensive.

    As for local news/governance, it was with the New Deal that the federal government migrated to a “super city hall” and the President to a “super mayor”. The problem with this is that our republican form of government with democratic elections has never worked well for cities in contrast to the historical federal, state and county/small town level. John Fiske in his ‘Civil Government in the United States’ theorized that is was due to the intimate, but necessary, services cities provided, water, sewage, etc., that required expertise to run and thus blind trust by the voter. This provides opportunities for political corruption and exploitation. This being the common experience of municipal government since before the United States was formed.

  8. Andy says:

    I don’t think there is a cause-effect relationship between newspaper closings and partisanship – rather I think it’s more likely that both of those are effects of other changes in our society, particularly the democratization of media and the spread of the internet.

    We have also gone from a country where we partisanship was more about personal loyalty, patronage, and clientelism to a country where partisanship is defined by ideology and adherence to specific policies. I used to think this was a positive change, but now I’m not so sure.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    Something else I hadn’t considered it until recently is that this lack of local media also makes it very difficult for small organizations to get the word out about themselves. I’m a member of a small social/hobbyist group that has been struggling with how to get more people to know about our organization. The local newspaper is hyper local and it doesn’t reach that many people. And people don’t really listen to the radio anymore except for NPR, but rather Spotify and Pandora and things like that. What we’re finding is that we can advertise with Google and Facebook relatively cheaply but we don’t really know who were connecting with. We had someone tell us that the best way to reach local people nowadays was to put up signs similar to real estate signs along the road. This definitely seems like a step back. The biggest drop by far has been something called Nextdoor but when I ask my neighbors if they know about it only about one in five or six people know what it is. I compare that to when I was younger and virtually everybody read at least some section of the newspaper, whether it was sports or front page or the comics, and you could advertise in all of those sections relatively cheaply.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    My wife has a day at a local school doing a one-school, one-book thing. As I’m free for the day I have decamped to a cigar lounge in Campbell. Campbell California being famous (to me at least) as the birthplace of Lars Frederiksen of the Bastards and Rancid.

    My point about human brains is that we are over-stressing them with extremely unnatural things. For example, seeing things beyond the range of your eyes, hearing things that took place years ago, seeing things deliberately designed to draw our eyes. It’s an interesting fact that humans are more likely to commit suicide in wealthier countries, countries where the stressors are so different than those we were designed to deal with. Obesity is another example of a disconnect between what we are evolved to do – store fat at every opportunity – and what we should logically do.

    I suspect that advanced human civilizations are gradually, collectively, going crazy. Our instincts are as powerful as ever, but are now as likely to be destructive as useful. Most people cope, but an awful lot of people don’t. We are not absorbing data as fast as it comes. We aren’t fitting all that new data into a manageable framework as successfully as we might.

  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You might be right. Biologists often speak of evolution as “punctuated equilibrium”. I feel that we are in a sociocultural phase change, a time when all sorts of things change, and pretty quickly, and that we will find a new equilibrium at some point where things will settle down and be more stable for a while. And this will let us be a bit less crazy.

  12. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We are not evolved to cope with the world as it has become.

    And yet we somehow evolved a complex brain that can handle complex abstractions like “ill gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today.”

    The brain is like a computer that is capable of running all sorts of different programs, from hunter-gatherer, to agrarian, to industrial worker to lone gunman.

    I don’t think there were any biological changes that presaged the agrarian revolution, or the enlightenment. An idea took over our biology, and propagated more effectively than genetics could have.

    It makes me wonder how these ideas got their start, what made them catch hold, and what other possibilities there were. And what possibilities still await us.

  13. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I suspect you’re on the right track. For those of us in the Baby Boom generation, our formative experiences were in the golden age (circa 1948-73) when prosperity was growing and flowing down (not just trickling) and our military and industrial might were unmatched. That age ended long ago, and many of us still have trouble processing that it’s over. Given the speed of change in the last 25-30 years, it’s hardly surprising that we go through many days feeling disoriented.

  14. Teve says:

    in the TV show Deadwood, the character George Hearst tell the newspaper editor you can print whatever you want to I’ll just start my own newspaper and lie the other way.

    Aren’t we just seeing a slow return to the explicitly partisan media of the whole 19th century?

  15. Kit says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Our instincts are as powerful as ever

    I wonder. There’s Japan’s generation of herbivores, who take to sex much like pandas. More generally, sex and drugs and rock n’ roll seems passé. Video games and online encounters seem more in tune with the spirit of the times.

  16. Tyrell says:

    I fondly remember the local evening news on tv. There were three announcers. One gave the news, one gave the weather, and one gave the sports news. They stuck to business and there was none of the unprofessional “happy” chatter between each other that we see now. On Friday nights we stayed up late and one person would do all three. After the scary movie went off, there was the National Anthem, and sign off. TV stations did not stay on all night. I miss those days.
    National news of course was CBS, NBC, and ABC (Turner’s CNN came much later). We had professional reporting with none of the slanted opinions, open political agendas, and the hosts hollering at people. These “commentators” would not have been allowed in the parking lots of the networks back then.
    We got a morning and evening newspaper, along with Time, Life, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated. Today few people read the paper, and the only magazines I see are at doctor’s offices and are usually two years old.
    “Walking through the park and reminiscing” (Little River Band)

  17. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Then, more or less overnight in historical terms,

    Along that vein, we had mass journalism that wasn’t utterly dependent on it’s entertainment value to distribute news for a fairly short time too. It’s dying now, but it’s birth was only around the late 19th century. What we have now resembles what we had before and during the Civil War. Thousands of papers, most run by one crackpot who was pandering to a predetermined audience.

    Now we have media which is more interested in being “interesting” than in covering issues (boring things…nobody ever made a nickel boring people) and nothing is more interesting than conflict.

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer: @SC_Birdflyte: @dazedandconfused: @Gustopher:

    It’s counterintuitive that we see see suicide, murder, spousal/sexual abuse, drug abuse, etc… in societies where objectively speaking the standard of living is extraordinarily high. There is no one in Sweden or Japan or the US today who is not objectively better-off than his ancestors of 200 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago. There’s a pretty good mix of first world and third world countries amongst the the highest suicide rates, but how does the United States come in equal to Eritrea, and a bit worse than El Salvador? Of 163 countries, South Korea is #10, Japan at #30, Finland #32, the US #34, Iceland #40. Iceland has more suicides per capita than Tonga or Guatemala. Why? No one is starving in Iceland. No one is in fear of government soldiers or famine or plague in Iceland.

    Something about modern life isn’t working as it should. Suicide is the ultimate expression of unhappiness, anomie, alienation and hopelessness. If people with everything modern civilization has to offer are killing themselves at the same rate as people living genuinely desperate lives, then to quote Miss Clavel, something is not right.

    We’ve had 70+ years of peace in the West and now it seems significant numbers of people in the countries that have profited from Pax Americana seem desperate to tear it all down. They’re the sociopolitical equivalents of anti-vaxxers. Evidently we’ve had too much peace and stability. The Morlocks have erupted from the sewers and try to tear it all down. A civilization that spawns significant numbers of people devoted to its destruction has got problems.

  19. Kathy says:

    I think Bill Bryson hit a bull’s eye in “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” when he said the purpose of DNA is to make more DNA.

    Seen that way, human DNA has been wildly successful, producing inmensurable amounts of more human DNA. The other big winners are plants, animals, and other living beings humans find useful or desirable, or who have become symbiotic or parasitic on us.

    Now to quote Larry Niven, “once you’ve reproduced, evolution is through with you.” This is not quite right, but it comes close. Living beings evolve by chance, literally. That is, changes to the genome are largely random. Natural selection winnows out what changes survive and reproduce.

    So, seen this way, does it matter whether people are happy or not, from an evolutionary point of view? If DNA is there to make more DNA, the the 7+ billions alive today and ever increasing their numbers, are as best as evolution has gotten. Literally the pinnacle of evolution.

    Try this analogy:

    When you take a plane to go from A to B, what do you care about? Price, maybe, timeliness, getting there safely, perhaps enjoying the flight. But do you care whether the pilots up front are happy? Or if the airline is making money? Or whether the flight attendant is happy with his boyfriend?

    What your genes care nothing for, your mind might. And unlike your genes, your mind is far more capable and flexible to act.

    But, here’s a thought: could it be the purpose of money is to make more money?

    Of course not. money has no agency.

    But people with money do. And that’s what seems to be the sole goal these days. Other considerations, like respect or prestige, seem to either have gone out of fashion or assumed as an entitlement of wealth. Did you know in Rome, Greece, and other ancient civilizations, the wealthy funded public projects like roads, aqueducts, fora, marketplaces, theaters, etc. for prestige? Can you imagine the like today?

  20. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “And yet we somehow evolved a complex brain that can handle complex abstractions like “ill gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today.””

    Tuesday. “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today…”

  21. just nutha says:

    @Kathy: The purpose of money is to store wealth in a form that will not decay (allowing that inflation is not decay but rather devaluation). The difference between then and now regarding wealth is who possesses it and the possessor’s perceived relationship to the society in which they live. And societal links can both decay and devalue.

  22. Tyrell says:

    Yes, the days of professional news reporting and presenting are long over. Somewhere along the line things changed. Now it is slanted opinions, political driven reporting, hollering at guests and fellow commentators. It is a negative, caustic atmosphere of sleaze, scandalisms, and lowest common denominator type of programs. “Gotcha” type questions are now normal. This is hurting our country.
    We used to have Charles Kuralt “On the Road” which gave a view of real Americana. It was uplifting, inspiring, and made people feel good. That is what we need today. Our nation needs more news about the good things going on today, instead of stuff like “Stormy Daniels”.
    Read “On the Road” by Charles Kuralt.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    Despite the theory of our founding that most political power should reside at the local and state levels because citizens are likely to be more familiar with the politicians and issues closest to them, nation-level politics and politicians have dominated our interest as long as I can remember.

    It was certainly true at the time that most issues were local issues. That is less true now than it has ever been, even before you start looking at seriously global issues like nuclear proliferation, global warming and climate change, and social media.

    I think it’s equally important, though, that today* local politics are typically more corrupt than state politics, which are more corrupt than the federal politics. There’s simply more scope for local power structures to have their way, and get away with things, than there is at higher levels. The conservative preference for local determination over remote authorities dates from a time when this was not true, and tends to cling to the preference without re-thinking the rationale.

    *Well, until this administration. The jury is still out on whether that’s a blip or a trend.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: An interesting point, but for my little town, I think that I would use the term “inbred” rather than “corrupt.” I don’t follow the “inside baseball” elements of the local politics (though our local newspaper is thriving and that seems to be the case in neighboring Clark County and in Metro Portland, where Pamplin Media is making a cottage industry in “neighborhood” press), but the same people run thing that were running them when I moved away 15 or so years ago. How much of that is that no one else is interested in doing it compared to no one else is being let in, I can’t say, but the local and county leaders are pretty locked in place.