Thursday, March 19, 2009

Life Without Local Newspapers?

Monkey Cage's John Sides uses two recently published books to imagine what life would be like without the influence of local newspapers.

The second book is even more relevant: Nothing to Read by Jeffery Mondak. Mondak studies the consequences of the 1992 Pittsburgh newspaper strike. The strike, which lasted from May 1992 until January 1993, ensured that Pittsburgh did not have a daily newspaper during the most of the 1992 campaign. Mondak compares then compares Pittsburgh voters to those in a similar city, Cleveland, which did not experience a strike. What did he find?

  • Pittsburgh voters did make recourse to other sources of news. They were less likely than Cleveland voters to get information from local newspapers, but more likely to get it from television, radio, magazines, and national newspapers. Those most likely to read local newspapers — people interested and informed about politics — were more likely to seek other print sources.
  • Pittsburgh and Cleveland voters were no different in how much attention they reported paying to news about the Presidential or Senate campaign. But Pittsburgh voters reported paying less attention to House campaign news.
  • Pittsburgh voters were not less knowledgeable about current events, campaign news, or the presidential candidates’ policy positions — as measured by factual questions.
  • Pittsburgh voters were not less likely to report discussing the Presidential or Senate race, but they were less likely to report discussing the House race.
  • Pittsburgh voters also differed in the kinds of information they drew on in voting for their House representative. They were more likely to depend on the views of their friends, family, and neighbors — those with whom they discussed politics. They were less likely to draw on their presidential vote. That is, there were weaker presidential “coattails” for Pittsburgh voters. Pittsburgh voters seemed to lack the information necessary to connect the House candidates and the presidential candidates.

What conclusions can we draw? Clearly, the elimination of local newspapers does not mean that people will know nothing about politics, or learn nothing about politics. As Mondak notes, some people are intrinsically motivated to follow politics and they will find a way to do so via other media. Perhaps that bodes well for the Post-Intelligencer’s future as an exclusively on-line news source.

However, “other media” may be poorly suited to providing certain kinds of information, and in particular information about local politics.
(emphasis mine)

It seems the loss of a local newspaper does not drive "offline" information getters online, but only into less local forms of print, and thus less education about local issues.

Obviously, the move away from print will happen, but I think Side's article shows that it will be a generational shift, and a sober reminder that no matter how fun this blogging gig is, or how cool the news aggregation sites are, we can't rival print on local coverage/local information.

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