When newspapers close, voters become more partisan

It seems impossible to ignore national politics today. The stream of stories about the president and Congress is endless. Whether online, in print or on television, it has never been easier to follow the action.

National news outlets are adapting well to this environment: The New York Times and Wall Street Journal made big gains in digital subscribers in 2016 and 2017, CNN had their most-watched year ever in 2018 and The New York Times added 120 new newsroom staffers this year.

Local newspapers are not doing as well. The past decade was brutal for the local press, and the numbers behind the collapse of local newspapers are staggering.

In 2006, American newspapers sold over US$49 billion in ads, employed more than 74,000 people and circulated to 52 million Americans on weekdays.

By 2017, ad revenues were down to $16.5 billion (a 66.4 percent drop); the newspaper workforce fell by 47.3 percent, to just over 39,000; and weekday circulation fell below 31 million.

At a time when national political news is inescapable, there is less local news to be found – and less interest in local politics from Americans.

This shift in media may have a direct effect on how people vote. Local newspapers help protect American democracy by giving people the information they need to hold local government accountable. They also provide an alternative to national news that is often focused on partisan conflict.

As political scientists and communications scholars who study the media’s influence on voters, we wanted to know whether these changes in the news industry had political effects.

Unlike local newspapers, The New York Times is doing well. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

A polarizing nation

In our new study, we show that the loss of local news leads to political polarization, making governing more difficult locally and nationally.

We began with a hunch: If people are reading more nationalized news when their local newspapers decline, they might become more polarized themselves and vote accordingly.

American politics became more polarized along party lines over the past 50 years.

National news focuses on that polarization and conflict, covering the partisan fights in Washington and framing politics as a game with winners and losers. In doing so, national news makes the parties seem more different and emphasizes their conflicts.

Our study examined split-ticket voting – where a person votes for candidates of both parties on Election Day – as a way to measure polarization in areas where local news is suffering.

Americans have frequently voted for different parties in state and national elections in the past. But split-ticket voting declined in recent years as politicians and the electorate became more polarized.

In 1992, for example, voters in more than one-third of the states holding Senate elections elected a senator from a different party than they voted for in the presidential election.