Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?
The death of newspapers – by cutbacks, outright disappearance, or morphing into lean websites – means a reduction of watchdog reporting and less local information. Some say it has caused a drop in civic participation. Is it a blow to good citizenship?
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"What we found was that, relatively speaking, fewer people ran for municipal office, incumbents became more likely to be reelected, candidates spent less on their campaigns, and voter turnout fell in the suburbs that got the most coverage from the Post," says economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, the study's lead author and a former newspaperman.Skip to next paragraph
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Along with his coauthor, Miguel Garrido, he concluded in the paper: "If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates, and accountability for incumbents are important for democracy, we side with those who lament newspapers' decline."
No watchdogs in "news deserts"
But all newspapers aren't created equal when it comes to boosting civic-minded behavior. In the mid-1990s, The New York Times began a campaign to grow in local markets nationwide. Two researchers have made an extensive study of that expansion's impact on the Times's college-educated target audience.
As the Times gobbles up local market share, "these readers are less likely to vote in local elections," wrote Lisa M. George and Joel Waldfogel in a 2002 working paper titled "Does the New York Times Spread Ignorance and Apathy?"
Ten years later, the alarm raised by this research still resonates among media-watchers.
"There are these highly educated cosmopolitans who are aware of all sorts of global issues, but increasingly unaware of what's happening in their city council or down the block," says Eric Klinenberg, author of the book "Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media." "That points to a major market failure. We have a collective need for news about local political matters; but in the marketplace, it doesn't generate the kind of demand that sports, gossip, and the weather do. We pay a steep price for this market failure."
Sometimes that price, paid by the public, goes to filling politicians' pockets. This appears to have been the case in Bell, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb of 36,000 people. Though more than 1 in 5 residents there lives below the poverty line, their public servants lived lavishly for years. City Manager Robert Rizzo owned a million-dollar home in an Orange County beach town. His 10-acre ranch in Auburn, Wash., housed a stable of thoroughbreds, including one called "Depenserdel'argent," from the French phrase for "spend money."
The name of Mr. Rizzo's horse – along with his annual salary of $800,000, later assessed at $1.5 million when investigators added benefits and other forms of compensation – came out in a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 report by the Los Angeles Times. Eight public officials were subsequently fired and charged in an ongoing criminal case with stealing some $5.5 million from taxpayers over at least four years. But by the time they were dragged into court, Bell was on the brink of bankruptcy.
"A lot of residents tried to get the media's attention, but it was impossible," community activist Christina Garcia told interviewers for a 2011 Federal Communications Commission report. "The city of Bell doesn't even have a local paper; no local media of any sort."