THE shutdown of a newspaper has an immediate and measurable impact on local political engagement, according to a new study by economists at Princeton University.
Assessing the consequences of the closing of the Cincinnati Post at the end of 2007, the researchers found that fewer people voted in subsequent elections, fewer candidates ran in opposition to the incumbents and that, as a result, the incumbents had a better chance of being returned to office.
"If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates and accountability for incumbents are important to democracy, we side with those who lament" the decline of newspapers, said economists Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido, who conducted the study.
As a onetime reporter and copyeditor who forsook journalism for a PhD in economics, Schulhofer-Wohl might be accused of having a soft spot for newspapers.
But he and his colleague ran a detailed, hard-nosed analysis of news coverage and voting patterns to determine that the political landscape in the Kentucky counties across the Ohio River from Cincinnati changed significantly after the Post ceased publication on Dec. 31, 2007.
“This paper offers a case study of the consequences of closing a newspaper,” wrote the authors here in describing their findings. “The closing was particularly important in the northern Kentucky suburbs, where the Post historically dominated circulation and, as we document, provided more than 80% of the combined local news coverage” between itself and the surviving Cincinnati Enquirer.
With the Post out of the picture, said the economists, “its absence appears to have made local elections less competitive along several dimensions: incumbent advantage, voter turnout and the number of candidates for office.”
Even though the Post sold only about 27,000 copies daily vs. 200,000 for the Enquirer, the Post contributed to making “local politics more vibrant” than they are today, concluded the study.
"By revealing incumbents' misdeeds or making it easier for challengers to get their message out, a newspaper may reduce incumbent advantage," said the researchers. "Newspaper stories could also raise interest in politics, inspiring more people to vote or run for office."
Although competing publications or other media such as TV, radio and blogs may take up some of the slack when a newspaper closes, said the researchers, "none of these appears so far to have fully filled the Post's role in municipal politics in northern Kentucky."