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Oct. 23, 2020, 1:45 p.m.

As they shrink, are local newspapers protecting their “iron core” of local government coverage? This paper says no

Newspapers have all had to make cuts. But it doesn’t look like they’ve favored the beats that are most important to democracy — watchdog coverage of local governments — over other kinds of news.

In 2009, Alex S. Jones1 published a book called Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy. 2009 was still relatively early in the Internet-driven decline of American newspapers, but the financial crisis had already done plenty of damage to news company revenues and newsroom jobs.

In the book, Jones focused on an idea he called the “iron core” of journalism:

Imagine a sphere of pitted iron, grey and imperfect like a large cannonball. Think of this dense, heavy ball as the total mass of each day’s serious reported news, the iron core of information that is at the center of a functioning democracy. This iron core is big and unwieldy, reflecting each day’s combined output of all the professional journalism done by news organizations — newspapers, radio and television news, news services such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and a few magazines. Some of its content is now created by new media, nonprofits, and even, occasionally, the supermarket tabloids, but the overwhelming majority still comes from the traditional news media.

This iron core does not include Paris Hilton’s latest escapade or an account of the Yankees game or the U.S. Open. It has no comics or crossword puzzle. No ads. It has no stories of puppies or weekend getaways or recipes for cooking great chili. Nor does it include advice on buying real estate, investing in an IRA, movie reviews, or diet tips. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. Indeed, pleasant and diverting stories are far more appealing to most people than the contents of the core, which some find grim, boring, or riddled with bias.

It has no editorials and does not include the opinions of columnists or op-ed writers or political bloggers. These things are derived from the core. They are made possible because there is a core. Their point of departure is almost always information gleaned from the reporting that gives the core its weight, and they serve to spread awareness of the information that is in the core, to analyze it and interpret it and challenge it. Opinion writers pick and choose among what the core provides to find facts that will further an argument or advance a policy agenda. But they are outside the core, because they almost always offer commentary and personal observation, not original reporting.

I find the iron core to be a useful metaphor because not all newsroom losses are the same. I say this with absolutely no disrespect to the many thousands of terrific journalists who work outside the core — but the impact on democracy and on an informed electorate is different when a city hall goes uncovered than when a restaurant goes unreviewed. And so one of the big questions about the decline of local newspapers, from a democracy perspective, has been: How much of the loss has come from the iron core, the robust coverage of local governments and officials? And how much has come from everything else?

There was some hope — and even some evidence — that newspapers might be protecting the iron core somewhat as they cut. A survey of more than 250 American newspapers around the time Losing the News came out found that many were aggressively cutting lifestyle, features, and business coverage while adding more coverage of local and community news. After all, local coverage is what differentiated a local newspaper; there was plenty of lifestyle content available online. Some papers, while shrinking overall, increased the size of their investigative teams, thinking that bold investigations were key to maintaining reader loyalty, especially as they raised print prices and, later, put up digital paywalls.

None of that should shine too happy a light on the cuts of the past decade-plus — they’ve been brutal. But it appeared possible that the iron-core coverage important to democracy might have been hit a bit less than other topics.

That brings us to this new paper in the American Journal of Political Science by Erik Peterson, an assistant professor at Texas A&M. (You can find a preprint version here.) The title’s “Paper Cuts: How Reporting Resources Affect Political News Coverage” and here’s the abstract, emphases as always mine:

Media outlets provide crucial inputs into the democratic process, yet they face increasingly severe economic challenges. I study how a newly salient manifestation of this pressure, reduced reporting capacity, influences political coverage.

Focusing on newspapers in the United States, where industry-wide employment fell over 40% between 2007 and 2015, I use panel data to assess the relationship between reporting capacity and political coverage.

Staff cuts substantially decrease the amount of political coverage newspapers provide. Across different samples and measurement approaches, a typical cutback to a newspaper’s reporting staff reduces its annual political coverage by between 300 and 500 stories.

These political news declines happen against the backdrop of similar reductions in nonpolitical coverage, meaning the share of newspaper articles focused on politics remains stable over this period. This demonstrates that economic pressure affects the political information environment by shaping the media’s capacity to cover politics.

In other words, the iron core’s coverage of local government and politics shrank just as much as everything else did.

Peterson found that, over the span of 1994 to 2014, a typical newspaper in his dataset lost about 12 reporters, which came with a reduction in the number of political stories the paper produced of about 500 stories a year. But the share of the newspaper’s stories that were about politics and government was unchanged.

“This stability occurs because political news declines happen against the backdrop of similar reductions in nonpolitical coverage,” he writes, “and means that, even as large absolute declines in political news coverage volume have occurred, political news has not been disproportionately affected by reporting cutbacks.”

For Peterson, that’s good news — his hypothesis going in was that political coverage would take a bigger hit than other types of news. But if you were holding out hope that it might take a smaller hit, well, sorry for the disappointment.

(For clarity’s sake, I should note that the definition of “political news” being used here is “local government coverage of mayors or city councils and local education coverage of school boards.” So it’s not “politics” only in the sense of candidates and elections; it’s coverage of local governments and local elected officials.)

Peterson started out by assembling data on newspapers staffing from two different sources: ASNE’s annual censuses and trade newspaper directories. (They cover different time periods, which is why some of his findings look at different time scales.) Then he broke down what share of their reporters covered political beats (45%), entertainment beats (35%), or “other” (20%; this includes people with generic titles like “news reporter” or who cover general assignments). This ratio remained quite consistent across the years he measured.

But those percentages are off of a shrinking base. Here’s a chart, using his two datasets, showing the shrinking total number of political stories over time.

And here he looks at the share of all stories that are about politics. Between 2000 and 2014, that share dropped from 35% to 29%, which he calls “relatively stable”: “At the aggregate level, political coverage and nonpolitical coverage fall at relatively similar rates and political coverage share is only slightly reduced by these declines…other, nonpolitical areas of coverage (e.g., sports, lifestyle) suffered to a similar degree as political news during this time.”

(He did find some evidence that, within politics stories, the share that were specifically about local politics increased slightly — perhaps countering some of that decline at the expense of state or national politics news.)

So, on the whole, not great news for the iron core. Coverage of local governments — the newswork most directly connected to an informed electorate and a healthy local democracy — isn’t being protected in any significant way as newspapers shrink. But it also doesn’t seem to be being targeted for extra pain.

Peterson’s paper still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, as all papers must. For one: Do the types of politics stories that get published change as staffing shrinks? I’d wager that the share of stories based on government press releases, news conferences, and meetings has gone up, as the reporters who remain have less time for enterprise or other longer-term work.

For another: Do the types of governments being covered change too? Do shrunken metro newspapers cut back in the suburbs and focus more of their reduced resources on their core city? Or do they cut coverage of the urban core in favor of the suburbs — thinking that the better-off readers there are the demographic they should concentrate on pleasing? Has retrenchment reduced coverage of school districts or city governments more? And does anyone cover the zoning board or the parks commission anymore?

There is one significant weakness in the paper which should be noted: Its most recent data is from 2014, which feels several universes away from 2020 in terms of media. (“Chris Hughes is doing controversial stuff at The New Republic! Facebook buys WhatsApp! There’s this awesome new podcast called Serial! Whoa, what are these new sites Vox and FiveThirtyEight?”)

More specifically, in 2014, paywalls were still young — and much less successful — at American newspapers. The industry flagship New York Times had only 910,000 digital news subscribers in total; now it has 4.39 million and adds nearly 500,000 more a quarter. Paywalls at local papers were mostly quite new, quite loose (often allowing 10 or 20 free articles a month), and quite niche — almost experimental at some papers that hadn’t yet seen the full scale of wreckage on their other revenue lines. If an emphasis on digital subscriptions (and a de-emphasis on digital advertising) has an impact on staffing, it might well be toward the iron core.

And of course, newsrooms have shrunk further since 2014, with the gap between chain newspapers (which have shrunken a lot since then) and locally owned newspapers (which have shrunken, but less) growing.

In any event, though, the impact of all these cuts is clear. Local newspapers are, as I’ve said before, basically little machines that spit out healthier democracies. Weaken your local newspaper and you’ll probably see lower voter turnout, more government corruption, less-engaged citizens, fewer candidates for local office, and more partisan voting.

I’m sure not all of those 500 missing politics stories each year in your local newspaper would have been impactful if they’d been written. But some of them would. Some of them would have gotten a citizen angry about something going on in her neighborhood and prompted a call to city hall. Some of them would have exposed wrongdoing by a public official. Some of them would have just left citizens with the happy feeling that their local government is doing good work and has their best interests at heart. If the stories never get written, we’ll never know. Here’s Alex Jones again:

What happens to a nation such as ours if most of its press is either tabloid, advocacy, or entertainment? There is no doubt in my mind that the standards that have been the defining principles of traditional news are in danger of being largely swept aside to salvage the fortunes of the corporations that have owned the organs of traditional news. If the iron core shrinks, the nation will be much the worse for it, and the momentum at present is in the direction of tabloidization — meaning a news media whose sole priority is profit rather than the public good combined with profit.

America has been a place where difference in knowledge — like difference in wealth — was not a yawning chasm and where a “reality-based” press was, for all its shortcomings, premised on the belief that reality is something all Americans should know about. A successful news media that does its job for all the nation’s citizens is the engine for the news that nourishes democracy. To demand that news organizations perform this service is a part of the legacy of American democracy as much as are the principles of tolerance and the pursuit of happiness. If the iron core should gradually rust away, Americans will have squandered part of their birthright. Surely we shall not allow that to happen.

  1. To be clear: We’re talking about the Alex Jones who used to run Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, who covered the media for The New York Times for many years, and who co-wrote (with his late wife Susan Tifft) two of the best books about 20th-century newspapers, The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times and The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty. Not that other Alex Jones with the screaming and the grunting and the pills. []
POSTED     Oct. 23, 2020, 1:45 p.m.
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