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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.

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