by Nancy Gibbs
Nancy Gibbs is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
Every couple of weeks you can read about another newspaper shutting its doors, or moving from daily to weekly, or hollowing out its newsroom until it’s little more than a skeleton staff bulked up with j-school students. Study the maps made by Penny Abernathy, visiting professor at Northwestern University and an expert on dwindling sources of news, and you can see the dead zones — the 200 or so counties with no local paper. About 1,600 other counties have only one.
Local news is the oxygen of democracy, the most trusted source for the most essential information, and we’ve long known why dying newsrooms damage communities. But look at the maps again, and another alarming picture comes into focus: The very places where local news is disappearing are often the same places that wield disproportionate political power.
This phenomenon affects Americans living far away from the news deserts. Demographers predict that by 2040, one-third of Americans will pick 70 percent of the Senate.
Think of a typical voter in South Dakota, with its single congressional district and, of course, two senators for a populationof about 895,000. Thanks to the Senate’s structural bias toward less-populated states, that gives each of the nearly 600,000 registered voters in South Dakota about 28 times more power in that body than each of the 17 million voters in Texas. When it comes to electing presidents, that South Dakota voter carries twice the weight in the electoral college as their Texas counterpart.
But with all that added clout for shaping the composition of Congress and, less directly, the Supreme Court and the White House, the voters in about half of South Dakota’s 66 counties have only a single weekly newspaper. Seven counties have no newspaper at all.
You could do the same math for residents of Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont or Delaware, all states with similarly enhanced political clout. But finding reliable local news sources is much harder in the first three — geographically larger, rural states with dispersed populations, which are much more likely to lack high-speed internet as well. In contrast, Delaware’s three small counties have 13 newspapers; Vermont’s 14 counties have 39.
By now we know quite a bit about why this matters. The citizens whose votes count the most might have the hardest time learning about the issues and candidates running in their communities — because there’s no longer anyone reporting on them. Since 2005, newspaper employment has fallen 70 percent, Abernathy calculates, and local TV, radio and new digital start-ups don’t begin to make up for that decline. Fewer knowledgeable local reporters means less accountability, leading to higher public spending, lower social cohesion, fewer people voting or running for office, less ticket-splitting and more polarization as people rely on national news sources. In 1992, a third of the states with Senate races picked a senator from one party and the president from the other. In 2016, not a single state did so, and that hadn’t happened in 100 years.
If you’re a Democrat hoping to stand a chance of winning in a red state, or a Republican in a blue one, it helps if voters get to know you personally, see you at ribbon cuttings and town halls, hear where your views depart from party orthodoxy. That’s a lot harder to do without local reporters providing reliable coverage, no matter how many targeted Facebook ads you buy. By the same logic, winning candidates are accountable to the voters who elevate them — unless no one knows what they ran on or what they are doing with their power, beyond whether they have an R or a D on their jersey. If you weaken the connection between voters and their representatives, you empower their donors, lobbyists and conflict entrepreneurs.
Partisan players are well aware of the opportunity presented when a local paper dies. Potemkin sites that mimic authentic newsrooms have popped up across the country, more than 1,300 in all; they have the look and feel of reliable information sources, but their content is often partisan noise, produced by dark-money-funded propaganda factories. A single purveyor, Metric Media, claims to post more than 5 million stories a month. All kinds of disinformation and conspiracy theories find the desiccated news deserts to be fertile ground.
We are dealing with a disruption of the entire ecology of information at the very moment when 78 percent of Americans say we can no longer agree even on basic facts. Local news is a crucial piece of a larger problem, and we can’t truly understand the forces threatening democracy without reckoning with that larger environment — both the disappearance of critical sources of essential information and the swelling of information streams that contaminate our public space.
A rising alliance of entrepreneurs, innovators, philanthropists and legacy news organizations is working overtime to build robust alternative information sources. Digital start-ups and nonprofit newsrooms are proliferating, but they typically are based in cities, not the hollowed-out rural counties that have often suffered most from the economic upheavals of the past but will hold disproportionate power in picking the leaders of the future.
All Americans need and deserve access to the information that enables good political choices — but that is disappearing fastest in places that need it most.