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With Newspaper Closed, Interest in Election Goes Down

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If, as Thomas Jefferson believed, newspapers are essential to a democracy, will our system of self-government suffer as more and more go out of business? With the recent closing of the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, that question has taken on a new urgency, and two Princeton University economists have just issued a disturbing answer.

In a still-unpublished study titled "Do Newspapers Matter?" Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido provide what they call “a case study of the consequences of closing a newspaper.” The publication in question is the Cincinnati Post, which published its last edition on Jan. 31, 2007.

For decades, the Post was the smaller of the two Cincinnati papers; its final circulation was only 27,000, compared to 200,000 for the dominant Cincinnati Enquirer. However, the paper retained a strong readership base in the suburbs north of the city, which are in the state of Kentucky.

Of all the stories about the region appearing in the two papers in recent years, approximately 85 percent were in the Post. The Enquirer ignored a number of the cities in the area altogether, making the Post the only regular source of local coverage aside from community weeklies.

To gauge whether the paper’s disappearance made a difference, the researchers examined data from 45 municipalities in seven Kentucky counties, including the results of every city council, city commission and school board race. They compared the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, measuring civic engagement and political competiveness in three different ways.

Their results suggest “the Post’s closure made elections less competitive.” Specifically, “fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout fell.”

In other words, participatory democracy suffered. Without a newspaper to serve as a focal point for debate and sounding board for ideas, interest in the campaign dropped, turnout declined and challengers had a more difficult time getting traction.

Perhaps, in future years, Web sites and other new-media outlets will replace newspapers’ traditional role and civic engagement will trend back up. Or perhaps not. For now, the researchers conclude, the closing of even an “underdog” newspaper like the Post “can have a substantial and measurable impact on public life.”

Schulhofer-Wohl and Garrido admit their results are “statistically imprecise,” and note that further studies will be needed to determine whether this effect is seen elsewhere. Sadly, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to find out.

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