Thursday, April 25, 2019

When local newspapers shrink, fewer people run for mayor

Strong local newspapers help their communities healthier financially, politically, and civically. They're "basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies," Joshua Benton reports for Harvard University's Nieman Lab. Newly published research has found yet one more link between local newspapers and their communities' civic health: when dailies cut their coverage of local government, fewer people run for mayor.

Meghan Rubado, assistant professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University and Jay Jennings, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas Austin, examined mayoral races and political coverage in 11 local newspapers in California. "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," they write.

Strong local coverage also correlated with tighter margins in mayoral elections. At a paper with a circulation of 10,000: "With five newsroom staffers, the predicted margin of victory in a typical mayor’s race is about 50 percent. With 15 newsroom staffers, it drops to 33 percent. With 20, it drops to 24 percent," Benton reports.

"This isn’t the first paper to connect newspapers’ health to the number of candidates for local office. One paper I’ve long been partial to used the natural experiment of the Cincinnati Post’s closure in 2007 to determine that, in the places where the paper had had the most readers, 'fewer candidates ran for municipal office [in the next local election]. Incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout and campaign spending fell,'" Benton writes.

However, most research has focused on newspaper closures rather than coverage reduction, Benton writes, which makes this study more relevant to most newspapers.

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