Thursday, June 03, 2021

Decline in local news coverage is bad for democracy, can increase polarization; research discusses ways to mitigate it

The decline of local newsrooms may be increasing political polarization and harming the fabric of American democracy, research indicates. Government aid could help small news outlets stay afloat, and focusing on local issues in the opinion section may help not only reduce polarization, but increase readership, Louisiana State University political-communication professor Joshua Darr writes for FiveThirtyEight in a wide-ranging piece that includes some of his own research.

"The local news business was devastated by Covid-19, even though consumers wanted more of its product," Darr writes. "Visits to local news websites spiked by 89 percent from February to March 2020, but newspapers did not profit from having more readers: Ad revenues for the largest newspaper publisher in the nation, Gannett, dropped 35% from 2019 to 2020. Journalists were laid off, furloughed or forced to accept early retirements or pay cuts. The pandemic, however, merely accelerated a crisis in local journalism" caused by several factors. Darr focuses on the results, citing research.

The decline of local news "has been linked to more corruption, less competitive elections, weaker municipal finances and a prevalence of party-line politicians who don’t bring benefits back to their districts," Darr reports. It also makes small-town residents getting their news mainly from national outlets that are often more partisan, making them more likely to vote for one party or the other. 

Editorial practices can help tamp down polarization. In 2019, the editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs ran only local and regional political content on the opinion page for a month, with no mention of then-President Trump or the upcoming elections. Darr and others surveyed locals and wrote a book about the experiment. Not only did the new policy slow political polarization, it nearly doubled online readership of the opinion section, he reports. 

"The economics of local news makes experiments like The Desert Sun’s difficult to replicate, however," Darr writes."The market is simply not providing local newspapers the resources they need to deliver the civic benefits they’re capable of, which raises the question as to what extent the government should step in to help. People have long debated whether freedom of the press means freedom from government assistance, but on this point, history is clear: Government policies like tax breaks and exemptions from some labor laws and minimum wage and overtime rules have benefited newspapers since the 18th century." One other way, already in place: preservation of laws requiring paid public notices.

A recently introduces bipartisan bill may help smaller news organizations. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La., are co-sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would give news organizations a temporary anti-trust exemption to collectively negotiate with tech companies "with the aim of helping smaller local publications earn back the much-needed online advertising dollars currently going to Facebook and Google," Darr notes.

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