Nation

Newspapers are on the decline. Could that be fueling partisan politics?

Haris Rauf /stock.adobe.com
When a local newspaper dies, does it mean voters in the area become more partisan, taking their cues from national news?

Is the decline of the newspaper industry fueling the country’s partisan divides?

Recent research examining split-ticket voting, where people vote for candidates of different parties in different races on their ballots, suggests that may be the case.

The newspaper industry has been taking a beating. The Associated Press reported in March, based on data gathered by the University of North Carolina, that more than 1,400 cities and towns across the United States have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years.

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The Wall Street Journal reported that local newspapers are failing to make the digital transition the larger players have — and “time is running out.” A Harvard expert predicts that half of surviving newspapers will be gone by 2021.

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One of the impacts, according to research published in December in the Journal of Communication, could be deeper partisan divides.

“We argue that the decline of local newspapers has contributed to the nationalization of American politics: as local newspapers close, Americans rely more heavily on available national news or partisan heuristics to make political decisions,” the study said.

Louisiana State University Professor Joshua P. Darr, lead author of the study, said in an interview, “We thought there might be a change in partisan polarization after a newspaper closes.”

The researchers found that “this is clearly a trend,” he said.

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Newspapers “give people a local option. Without that, they may turn to national news and national news is going to be more polarizing.”

The researchers looked at the amount of split-ticket voting in a group of counties around the country where newspapers had closed and compared that voting with similar counties where newspapers hadn’t closed.

It found that newspaper closures had a small but significant effect.

“As an average effect, we would expect if you lose a newspaper, you could have about 2 percent less split-ticket voting than if you hadn’t lost a newspaper,” Darr said.

While it may not seem a lot, “that is often enough to win an election,” Darr and his co-authors wrote in a post on The Conversation.

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The study said it bridged the divide between previous research on the “polarizing effects of the changing news environment,” and on the “consequences of weakening local media.”

If people don’t have quality local news options, the researchers said, they can turn to party affiliation, which is the “cheapest source of information available to voters. These cues are even more useful in low-information, down-ballot races.”

“There are plenty of reasons to be troubled about the loss of local newspapers, not the least of which are concerns about journalists’ ability to perform the watch-dog role in their community,” the study concluded.

While people may disagree over whether a decline in split-ticket voting is troubling, “the amount of public concern presently expressed about polarization suggests our findings offer one more reason to bemoan the decline of local newspapers. If trends continue, the national lens may be Americans’ only remaining option through which to view their political choices,” the study said.

Boston Archives
When print was on the rise — a newsstand at Sullivan Square Terminal in 1902.