I must admit, I haven’t bought a local newspaper for years and I don’t think we get the local freesheet in my particular neck of the west Londonshire woods, however after reading Roy Greenslade’s coverage of the democratic impact of newspaper death, I think I will be making more of an effort in future.
Greenslade’s piece is an overview of a paper by two American economists, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido. Entitled ‘Do Newspapers Matter? Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinnati Post‘, it examines the impact of the closure of the Post at the end of 2007 which left the Cincinnati Enquirer as the only local paper. Their findings were that following its demise “fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout fell.” Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido state that “although our ﬁndings are statistically imprecise,they demonstrate that newspapers– even underdogs such as the Post, which had a circulation of just 27,000 when it closed–can have a substantial and measurable impact on public life.”
So lack of competing viewpoints, or a mouth piece for those competing viewpoints, potentially decreases the urge in the populace to take action of their own. I think that it has been too easy to forget within our little social media bubble, as we excitedly point to the rising power of bloggers and hyperlocal websites who will take on the mantle of local champion, that not everyone actually has internet access in the UK and those that do do not automatically check out local news sites.
Obviously, as stated above, not everyone reads the local paper either but I’d hazard that you’re more likely to accidentally spot a header board outside the local newsagents then stumble across the same thing online. It’s also important to have someone whose job it is to ask awkward questions and have the resources to back them up while doing so. We all know that newspapers are declining, we all know that this is a bad thing, though some of us are less sure than others about exactly why this is a bad thing. Some people seem to believe that its actually a good thing, newspaper editorial agendas are set by their owners and advertisers, so devolving journalistic powers down to the ppl is surely a good thing. Unencumbered by such matters as making money they are free to stick it to the man willy nilly but it seems that it might not quite work like that. Few bloggers have the resource and fewer still have a decent enough audience to actually make a decent amount of noise. So if it’s not working like now, what future guarantees are there are bloggers being able to take on the mantle of a free press as the influencers who ask the questions some would rather they didn’t.
Charles Arthur’s piece on local council shenanigans in the UK which went unchallenged by the local paper is also worth a read in the context of the Schulhofer-Wohl & Garrido research.