Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Holding algorithms (and the people behind them) accountable is still tricky, but doable
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Feb. 19, 2014, 10:30 a.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Caroline O'Donovan   |   February 19, 2014

The Boston Globe brought my attention to a paper recently published in the journal Political Communication: “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” by Lee Shaker.

As the title suggests, Shaker wanted to measure how losing a newspaper changes the way residents interact with each other, and with civic issues. While academics have struggled to accurately measure the impact of newspapers on communities in the past, Shaker says, their demise actually provides a unique opportunity to do so. He finds that civic engagement, as measured by a suite of indicators, declined notably in Seattle and Denver when their second papers (the Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News) closed a few years back.

In a newspaper, news is literally on top; on the internet, news may be easily overwhelmed by the preponderance of other content. In addition, metropolitan newspapers are inherently local and their presence is a tie between lifeworld and system in their communities. This triangulation between lifeworld, system, and physical place is not necessarily replicated by digital media. And, as dead newspapers are replaced over time by new media, it is possible that citizens’ relationships with each other and their society will fundamentally change as well.

So how important are newspapers? The results in this article suggest that eliminating a local newspaper from a community leads to less civic engagement in the immediate aftermath among the citizens of that community. How citizens replace that newspaper, and what the contours of civic engagement look like going forward, are questions for future researchers. The advent of new communication opportunities suggests that new forms of engagement will also develop. Thus far, there are many questions about the importance of place online: why should any one place matter when we may all be virtual and interconnected? And yet, our society is still geographically organized and governed. Ultimately, if we desire healthy and productive democratic communities, then the provisioning of local news — which helps tie citizens to each other and their communities — must continue. Newspapers like the PI and Rocky may be gone, but a commitment to local news and information cannot be abandoned.

There’s prior art here; Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido found in 2009 that the closure of the Cincinnati Post (which primarily served the city’s Kentucky suburbs across the river) was correlated to a decline in a number of behaviors related to voter engagement. The next question: Does the observable decline persist over time, or do the news ecosystem and the audience respond to the one-time shock of a closure?

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Holding algorithms (and the people behind them) accountable is still tricky, but doable
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