Tuesday’s election is incredibly important, in Seattle and every other community that’s emerging from the pandemic, looking to improve and considering a fresh start in 2022.
Yet seven of 10 Washington voters couldn’t be bothered to participate in the August primary. If trends continue, around six of 10 will blow off the Nov. 2 general election. Nationally, turnout in local elections has fallen even lower.
There are many reasons for this abysmal situation.
But a new book makes a powerful case that the gutting of local newspapers, and loss of political coverage they used to provide, is why Americans have mostly stopped participating in local elections and governance.
“News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement” uses new research to draw lines between plunging local coverage, loss of information available to voters, lack of knowledge of local issues and falling turnout.
The “hollowing out of daily newspapers, long the nation’s most vibrant and indispensable sources of community information has had profound consequences for local political engagement,” write authors Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless, political science professors at George Washington University and the University of Virginia.
“At a moment in history when information on seemingly any topic is bountiful and available with a click, the tale of local politics is quite the opposite,” they write. “It is one of increasing scarcity — of both public affairs journalism and citizen engagement.”
They build on earlier studies that established connections between the loss of local newspapers and civic participation, and go deeper into local coverage with a database they built to measure different types of local political coverage in more than 200 newspapers in every state over three decades.
They found a dramatic reduction in local government reporting across the board but most severely at smaller outlets often serving rural and poorer communities. Cuts were largest in beats viewed as less profitable, such as city and county government and schools, and they found TV stations and online startups “largely failed to fill the void when newspapers have pulled back.”
Specifically, they found that reporting about mayors, city councils, county governments and school boards declined by about 50% on average over a 15-year period. I’m surprised the decline isn’t greater, particularly in rural and suburban areas.
They also surveyed people who do and don’t read local papers to gauge local civic knowledge. Most of the non-readers couldn’t name their mayor, so maybe it’s just as well they’re not voting.
That’s all despite climbing education levels and the growing importance of local politics, which now involves issues like race, policing and immigration, Hayes said in an interview.
“News Hole” isn’t all doom and gloom, though. It also explores possible solutions, looking particularly at ways to stimulate demand for local coverage.
Hayes said there’s a lot of effort on the supply side to find ways to provide more financial resources and reporting capacity (cough cough!), but more needs to be done to reinvigorate citizens’ interest in local news.
“Our view is that those are all really critical and really important to rescuing the industry, which is so important to democracy,” he said.
I can’t agree more. It’s a big lift, though: Consumers have Netflix and Facebook at their fingertips, and newsrooms that were cut in half are pivoting online and relying on digital metrics that deprecate routine civic coverage.
Hayes and Lawless suggest a coalition of philanthropies and nonprofits fund a long-term marketing campaign on behalf of local news.
Through exit polls and surveys they found “that you can actually drive up consumer demand for local news if you remind people how important local politics is,” he said.
I particularly like how they look at the problem from new angles, support “all of the above” to revive and sustain newspapers, and focus on the importance of essential local coverage.
“We can build civic engagement at the local level back up,” he said. “Our findings suggest that if you if you provide people with more information about local politics, they are more likely to participate. That should be a core goal.”
“News Hole” isn’t exactly upbeat.
But Hayes, a former reporter at a small paper in Texas, is optimistic about the potential to revive these institutions.
“You’ve got fewer reporters trying to cover the same cities and counties that they used to, and it’s just harder and harder and civic engagement has suffered because of it,” he said. “That does suggest that as efforts to reinvigorate local journalism continue and some solutions can be found, that there is hope for bringing civic engagement back up.”
Let’s hope so, and be sure to vote in Tuesday’s election.