Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
A study of 11 California newspapers shows that when cities have fewer reporters, political competition and voter turnout suffer.
For six years, Meghan Rubado worked as a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard. As she flit from beat to beat, covering City Hall and the school board, she watched as the paper began to deteriorate around her. The paper cut benefits and established a hiring freeze. Her colleagues took buy-outs or got unpaid furloughs. As they disappeared, she said, her duties ballooned.
“It was clear to me then that I could not pay attention to everything that deserved it, could not maintain relationships in the same way,” Rubado told CityLab. So, in 2010, right before mass layoffs at the paper, she quit and went to graduate school to earn a doctorate in political science. “Between the staff and benefit cuts, and the less-fulfilling work, I figured another six years of school and near-poverty sounded pretty good,” she said.
Now she’s an assistant professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University. But Rubado hasn’t stopped thinking about her days at the Standard, and what happens to cities like Syracuse and Cleveland when local newspapers shed employees. So together with Jay T. Jennings, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she decided to measure the civic implications of a shrinking local media.
Using 11 California newspapers and two decades of local elections as case studies, Rubado and Jennings found that when there are fewer reporters covering an area, fewer people run for mayor, and fewer people vote. Put another way: When newspaper staffing levels are higher, voters have more of a choice in who leads their city, and more of them feel like showing up to choose.
The connection is no coincidence, says Rubado. “If there’s nobody reporting on or providing information about candidates, about legislation, about how money is being spent, or the budgeting process, how will people know that they require a quality challenger to unseat an ineffective mayor?” she said. “They don’t know the mayor is ineffective!”
The crisis in local journalism isn’t just about disappearing publications and the spread of “news deserts” across the landscape. It’s also about the dramatic decline in newsroom jobs at the papers that are surviving, forcing fewer journalists to do the work of many. From 2008 to 2017, total newspaper newsroom staffing almost halved, according to a Pew analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, dropping from 71,000 employees to 39,000. In the early 2000s, the average staff size of newsrooms peaked at around 50, according to data provided to the researchers by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). By 2013, that average was down to below 25.
When news-gathering resources are whittled down, papers struggle to adjust. Older, better-paid journalists are often laid off first, forcing newspapers to also lose longstanding source connections and institutional memory. As journalists take on extra beats and reporting time is stretched, city council meetings go uncovered, budgets unanalyzed, and legislation unchallenged. And when coverage declines, reader trust and interest also erodes, according to a recent Pew study. Eventually, this can catalyze a cycle of disinvestment in local news, which can in turn allow corruption to proliferate and government costs to soar, one recent report found.
But the relationship between local journalism and political engagement and competition has been less examined. To measure it, Jennings and Rubado looked at the connection between changes in staffing levels and election results from the following year.
ASNE provided data on newsroom staffing nationwide, but the researchers chose to study newsrooms in California specifically because of the state’s readily available cache of high-quality, consistent election statistics. As a big state, California also boasts a diversity of types of newspapers and sizes of cities.
Within California, the researchers chose to focus only on newspapers based in the largest city within their metropolitan area, to ensure that they were not also covered by regional papers like the Los Angeles Times. They also limited analysis to newspapers covering cities with a population of at least 50,000. They measured circulation to make sure the newspapers were actually consumed by the local population, only including those with a 10 percent circulation rate and above. And to ensure the data wasn’t muddied by other variables that affect turnout and political competition, they controlled for socioeconomic status and demographic makeup of communities, and took into account whether elections took place on an off-year, or if mayors were running against an incumbent. In all, the dataset covered 11 newspapers, 46 municipalities, and 246 mayoral elections over two decades.
Their first major finding: When more journalists were working at the local paper, more candidates ran for mayor. If a newspaper hired one more staffer for each 1,000-person circulation (or 10 staffers for a paper with a circulation of 10,000), the number of candidates would “increase by an expected factor of 1.23, all else held constant.”
“It’s generally the difference between having an option or not,” said Rubado.
By measuring the victory margins for successful mayoral candidates, they again found a correlation between tight races and healthier newspapers: When more journalists worked at the local paper, mayoral candidates won with a smaller percentage of the votes. It was also less likely for an incumbent mayor to run for reelection unchallenged.
The effect on voter turnout was a little less dramatic: For every one-unit increase in staffing level, they found a 6 percent increase in turnout, with other variables held constant. Turnout was also affected by education level (cities with more educated populations had higher voting rates) and demographics (cities with a larger population of white and non-Hispanic residents voted less).
Combined with other reports, these findings add one more brushstroke to the dire portrait of local news in America. The question is, where do we go from here?
In many cities, new digital-only news startups, often with nonprofit status, have appeared. In Austin, Texas, Jennings says, the Austin Monitor has been bolstering coverage of his neighborhood after the Austin American-Statesman experienced large staffing cuts. In Philadelphia, where both researchers went to graduate school at Temple, mass layoffs at the Inquirer and the Daily News paved the way for online publications like Billy Penn to start filling in. In San Jose—one of the California cities analyzed by the researchers—the Mercury News has been supplemented by the San Jose Spotlight, a nonprofit news organization that launched this year.
But such startups can’t be the only solutions, says Jennings. “We just have some hesitancy about how to compare an active, large professional newsroom with people that have been working the beat for years with these upstart organization that are starting to fill in the gaps,” he said.
With more data about the true toll cities pay for losing local news, Rubado says she hopes things can change. “There will be a reckoning,” she said. “When people realize that the quality of their local governance and local government are decreasing—when their quality of representation is decreasing—I do think there will be a market demand for renewed attention to local matters. But I’m not sure how long that will take. And I have a lot of concerns about what will happen in the meantime.”