Do Newspapers Matter?

Yes they do. My media friends have this nice empirical paper to show and prove their might.

There is an interesting research on the topic by Miguel Garrido and Sam Schulhofer-Wohl of Minneapolis Fed. Results are summarised here as well.

They point there were something like 689 city newspapers in US a century ago. This has shrunk to just 11 city newspapers. What is the impact of this decline? There have been some studies but cannot separate correlation from causation. This paper runs on a natural experiment and hence one can track the impact easier.

What is the natural experiment?

Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido mitigate this problem by studying a “natural experiment” in which the timing of a newspaper’s closure was virtually determined 30 years in advance, so had little or nothing to do with current political trends. (They use several statistical checks to further strengthen their case.)

In 1977, the Post and a competing newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, entered into a joint operating agreement (JOA), a legal arrangement established by Congress in 1970 under the Newspaper Preservation Act. With the goal of preserving a free press and diversity of editorial viewpoint, the act exempted competing newspapers in “economic distress” from antitrust laws and allowed them to charge monopoly prices for subscriptions and advertising. The Post-Enquirer JOA specified an explicit endpoint of Dec. 31, 2007.

Hit with an almost 90 percent decline in circulation over the next 30 years, the Post did in fact close its doors on that date, while the Enquirercontinued to publish and, indeed, increased its news coverage of thePost’s former geographic strongholds in northern Kentucky. The predetermined closure date  supports the economists’ argument of causality since the newspaper closed for reasons wholly unrelated to local politics.

Wow. A superb natural experiment.

What are the findings? The closure of the newspaper led to people in Kentucky region (where Post has presence) being less informed about politics, less participation in elections etc. So closure of newspaper= less competition in political space:

The economists gathered data between 2003 and 2010 for 48 municipalities in the seven counties of the Post’s core or near-core areas of Kentucky circulation. The data include a number of stories about each municipality, results of local elections, candidate spending in each election and demographics in 2000. From the election information, the economists construct several measures of “political engagement and completion”: estimates of voter turnout, ratio of candidates to seats available, fraction of seats won by incumbents and total expenditure for local political office campaigns.

They then run regression equations to gauge statistically the impact of shifting levels of newspaper coverage on each of the dependent political variables, and the results are unequivocal: “On all four measures of political engagement and competition, we find indications that the Post’sclosure made elections less competitive.”

Their estimates of political events in areas where the Post was more important than the Enquirer show that after the Post closed:

  • Relatively fewer people went to the polls. (“The Post’s closing is estimated to reduce the number of voters by between 59 percent…and 92 percent…in a municipality where the Post provided all coverage, compared with a municipality where the Post provided no coverage.”)
  • Relatively fewer people ran for office.
  • Incumbent advantage rose.
  • Candidates spent relatively less money on their campaigns.

Hmmm.. So even a small newspaper like Post with just 27,000 daily copies sold in 2007 has an impact on local political debate and voter choices.

The limitation of the study is that it is based only in one region. Needs to be tested in other regions as well:

Perhaps the largest qualification is that these results were obtained in just one geographic area. Would they be equally strong elsewhere? “Future research could investigate the consequences of closing of other news-papers,” write Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido, “though a significant challenge is to find an exogenous or at least predetermined closing.”

Assuming their findings are more generally valid—that fewer news-papers suggests less competitive  elections—the overarching question remains: How valuable are competitive elections? “If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates, and accountability for incumbents are important to democracy,” the economists conclude, “we side with those who lament newspapers’ decline.”

Let’s see if we can have more of such studies..

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