Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States

By Meghan E. Rubado (Cleveland State University) and Jay T. Jennings (The University of Texas at Austin)

The prolonged and ongoing struggle of city newspapers to stay afloat and maintain full newsrooms made us curious about potential fallout for local politics. Our article in Urban Affairs Review leverages 20 years of data to examine the relationship between newspaper staffing cuts and measures of political competition and voter engagement in mayoral elections.

Using data on newsroom staff levels for 11 medium-sized California newspapers, as well as mayoral elections data in the cities served by these papers, we found that when newspapers cut more staff, the mayoral races that followed included fewer candidates, resulted in larger victory margins for winners, and more regularly featured unchallenged incumbents. It appears that local political competition suffers when newspapers decimate their newsrooms. Results for voter turnout were suggestive that staff cuts also lead to decreased voter engagement.

Our research began with an understanding that local newspapers in many country contexts have long served a critical role in democracy, often providing the only regular and reliable source of information on local elections, policymaking, and other local government activities. However, in recent decades, these important institutions have declined as a result of shrinking revenues from circulation and advertising. In response, many newspapers have slashed their staffing levels or folded entirely. Newspapers operating with leaner staff levels have had to adjust the way they cover local government and politics, while also shifting to online delivery of news content. We gathered data on newspaper staffing figures from the Newsroom Employment Survey of the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). The figure below displays the average number of staff members in newsrooms responding to the survey from 1994 to 2016. The average staff size of newsrooms peaked at just under 50 in the early 2000s. In 2006, the size of newsrooms began to drop dramatically, and by 2013, average staff size was down to less than 25.

U.S. Newsroom Staffing Over Time

While newspapers have taken different approaches to adjusting to online content delivery, many have reduced attention to local government policy and elections. Newsrooms with fewer reporters and resources have shifted focus away from this traditional government watchdog role and toward stories that attract more reader attention and clicks on their websites. We argue that the decline in staffing, resources, and dedication to local government coverage makes it more difficult for citizens to stay informed about local public affairs, and therefore produces negative outcomes for citizen engagement and political competition in cities.

To test our theory, we analyzed the relationship between newsroom staffing levels at 11 daily newspapers and the outcomes of 246 mayoral elections in 46 cities served by these newspapers. The period of study was 1994-2014. We hypothesized that newspapers with larger cuts in staffing would reduce local government coverage, and as a consequence, the cities they serve would experience larger drop-offs in voter turnout for local elections and reduced competition in mayoral races.

Our analysis of the data suggests that as newsroom staffing declines, the competitiveness of city political races does indeed suffer. The data also showed suggestive evidence that voter turnout in mayoral races was lower when newspapers had recently cut more staff. Overall, our analysis found that political competition and engagement were reduced under conditions of newsroom staffing decline. The figures below show the relationship between newsroom staff levels and our three measures of electoral competition (number of candidates running, incumbent-only races, and victory margin), as well as voter turnout in on- and off-year elections.

An important question to consider is whether alternative forms of media could eventually step in to fill the traditional watchdog role of newspaper reporters on the local government beat, thus alleviating the effects we observed. While other forms of information provision have emerged, including online niche news media sources and blogs, to date, there is no evidence that these have provided a replacement to the observations of professional local reporters who attend government meetings and develop relationships with city officials, bureaucrats, and community stakeholders in cities of all sizes.

We believe these findings have important implications. Newspapers are a means of citizen engagement, and this study provides evidence of the importance of this link. If key electoral outcomes suffer with the decline of newspapers, we might expect additional troubling consequences. First, turnout decline leads to concerns about reduced representativeness of the voting public. Meanwhile, reduced competition in mayoral races may worsen declining citizen engagement, further diminishing turnout and other forms of political participation by citizens, such as contacting officials and contributing to political campaigns. And if sitting mayors are more easily able to keep their seats, they may feel less need to be accountable to them and more freedom to act in their own interests or those of their supporters. In sum, our results suggest that if we want strong local democracy, our society may require new local information sources or renewed local newspaper/online news operations.

Editor’s Note: In summer 2019, the authors conducted follow-up research by interviewing journalists at the newspapers covered in the UAR article, resulting in a report for the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at UT Austin and the Knight Foundation.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Utsav Srestha on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Meghan E. Rubado is assistant professor of urban studies at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. Her research focuses on how state and local institutions shape political and policy outcomes, and interests include collaborative governance, environmental policy, local service delivery, and urban politics.

Jay T. Jennings is a postdoctoral fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. His research examines the motivation to participate in politics and lies at the intersection of the fields of political behavior, political psychology, and political communication.

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