News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement
Danny Hayes, Department of Political Science, George Washington University
In recent decades, voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections has risen, education levels have hit historic highs, and the internet has made political information more accessible than ever. Yet at the same time, public engagement with politics at the local level has fallen. While prior research has focused on societal changes and the nationalization of American politics to explain this trend, we argue that the decline of local journalism has played a key role. As newspapers have suffered financially and slashed staff, they have dramatically cut their coverage of mayors, city halls, school boards, and virtually every aspect of local government. We combine an analysis of hundreds of local newspapers over two decades with an array of data from election returns, surveys, and consumer behavior to show how changes to the media environment have affected civic engagement. As newspapers have withered, Americans have become less knowledgeable about their local governments and less likely to participate in local elections. These findings raise the prospect of growing inequality in local politics and highlight the challenges of preserving democratic accountability in an era of diminished local journalism.