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Do newspapers matter? Can we prove it?

The trajectory of your home-town newspaper over the last 20 years probably hasn’t been upward. As the chart above suggests, starting even before the rise of the internet, major daily newspapers have steadily seen their audience erode (and possibly die, literally). Pew has covered the dissolution of the newspaper industry in great detail over the years, notably in annual reports on the state of the news media. It’s probable that this isn’t news to you…on the other hand, if you’re one of the many who doesn’t read a paper anymore, maybe it is.

Anyways, over the past few years many voices in the public sphere have bemoaned the collapse of newspapers. Paul Starr wrote convincingly of a looming problem with corruption. Clay Shirky wrote about their doom. Even the FCC lumbered onto the scene with a take on how to inform communities in the future. But should we really care about the decline of newspapers? Are they actually important? At this point, if so few people are reading them, does it matter if they exist? Isn’t the internet better at delivering information than mashed up dead trees?

For whatever reason, there is very little empirical, scholarly research that indicates that newspapers actually matter. A smattering of projects over the years have shown a correlational relationship between newspaper readership and various outcomes: voting in a local election, knowing more about local politics, having greater civic responsibility. But this work is only correlational — not causal; in other words, it shows that newspaper readership and various local civic/political outcomes are related, but it doesn’t show that newspapers cause any of these outcomes (like knowledge gains). What’s the problem? How could people learn about local politics if not from newspapers? By attending city council meetings? Who does that? Maybe it’s just hard to measure the importance of newspapers because they have been so pervasive…

Until now. Now, newspapers are falling from their perch at the center of local civic/political life. In fact, some of them are just disappearing entirely.

Which is terrible. But also, an opportunity.

Accordingly, I’ve been working on a research project that uses the closure of two newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News from Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, to search for empirical evidence of the civic/political effect of newspapers upon their communities. The project isn’t done yet, but if you click through you can see some preliminary results.

My approach is basically to measure the year of year change in a series of questions about civic engagement asked by the US Census of residents in Seattle, Denver, and many other cities. Prior research tells us that newspapers and civic engagement are positively correlated, so removing a newspaper should have a negative effect on civic engagement. The idea, then, is that a natural experiment exists: between time 1 and time 2, 2 cities (Seattle and Denver) lost a newspaper and the rest didn’t. All national forces bearing upon these communities should be the same, so a case can be made that any change that occurs in Seattle and Denver but not elsewhere can be attributed to the closure of the newspaper. Clearly, this isn’t a laboratory experiment — other, unobserved and idiosyncratic, factors could explain any change in civic engagement over time. But…maybe this approach can tell us something we didn’t know before.

To the results:

This figure shows that, in Denver, 4 of 5 indicators of civic engagement (contacting a public official, boycotting a good or service, participating in a neighborhood group, participating in a civic group, being an officer in a neighborhood or civic group) declined significantly from November 2008 to November 2009. The Rocky Mountain News closed in March, 2009 — right between the two readings of civic engagement. Correlation or causation? Hard to say — lots of other things could have changed in a year, right? Bad economy, no presidential race, etc. What happened elsewhere?

In Seattle, the picture isn’t quite as clear: 2 of 5 indicators decline significantly, year over year. Worth noting here: the PI had half the market penetration of the Rocky Mountain News and it didn’t totally disappear — it just went web-only with a much reduced staff. So, maybe about half as strong of a negative effect is what we should expect? Or maybe this is all just noise? What happened in the ‘control’ cities anyways?

Thanks for asking. Basically, in the control cities there is no evidence of a systematic decline year-over-year in civic engagement. 4 of 40 indicators increase significantly and only 1 of 40 decreases. The decrease registers in Cincinnati, which lost its own newspaper at the end of 2007. These cities were chosen, for the record, to be roughly comparable to Denver and Seattle and somewhat representative of the whole nation. (My working paper on this topic has a larger basket of 25 cities that is comprised of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the nation — and the results there don’t change the story told here.)

So, do newspapers matter to their communities and the citizens they serve? It seems like this data provides grounding for a tentative yes. What do you think?

There are 2 Comments to "Do newspapers matter? Can we prove it?"

  • Honestly it looks like a weak argument to me. Only one of your two test cities showed a majority of declining indicators, and you only have one year of data.

    It’s also not clear to me how you measure the effect of journalism. Your example of keeping informed in local politics (“nobody goes to city council meetings”) is potentially compelling, but none of your indicators actually capture that particular thing.

    Nor do you need news from a newspaper to go talk to an official or join a civic group. For one thing, local governments have their own online communications efforts now, which provide a lot of the day-to-day civic information that used to require local news.

    • lks says:

      You’re right — I don’t have laboratory-strong evidence. But, for about 100 years, researchers have struggled to gain any causal evidence of the importance of local media. So, let’s put it this way: it’s a step in the right direction. Happy to take suggestions and/or donations to produce stronger evidence.

      Since you’re interested, I’ll send you the whole paper; there’s much more detail than the blog post contains. Cheers!

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