By Bob Davis
With newspaper journalism looking more and more shaky, the question arises: Does it really matter to a community if a newspaper folds?
Princeton economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and a Princeton undergraduate research assistant, Miguel Garrido, tried to figure that out by looking at the effects of the closure of the Cincinnati Post at the end of 2007. Though the Post had a circulation of just 27,000, compared to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s 200,000, the Post was especially strong in the suburbs of northern Kentucky. In 48 communities there, the Post accounted for about 80% of the combined local news coverage of the two newspapers, the researchers estimate.
The researchers compared local elections in those suburbs during the presidential election years of 2004 and 2008 – the latter being after the Post folded. The results: voter turnout was reduced in 2008 by between 2 and 8 percentage points in the towns that Post covered most heavily, compared to towns where the Post wasn’t as dominant.
Similarly, the probability of an incumbent winning rose by between 8 and 19 percentage points in towns where the Post was strong compared to those where it was weak, while the number of people running for office dropped by between 2 and 14 candidates in 2008 for every 100 seats up for election in Post-dominated towns.
Of course, many other factors could be at play, say the researchers who label their work “statistically imprecise.” By comparing outcomes in communities where the Post was weak – and thus its closing wouldn’t be expected to have much effect – with communities where the Post was strong, they tried to reduce the likelihood of chance.
“If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates and accountability for incumbents are important to democracy, we side with those who lament newspapers’ decline,” the authors write.
As a former newspaper reporter for the E.W. Scripps Co. chain, which also owned the Post, Mr. Schulhofer-Wohl says he was especially interested in research – and “relieved” at the outcome. Why did he change profession? “Journalism is really fun,” the 32-year-old economist says, “but I wanted a less chaotic lifestyle.”
Source: WSJ Blogs