Did the Fall of Local News Bring Us Authoritarianism in Washington?

Author:Glastris, Paul
Position:Editor's Note - Editorial

The decline of local news is one of those developments that almost everyone knows can't be good but almost no one feels compelled to do much about. Part of the reason is that the trend seems to be driven by market forces that we couldn't control even if we tried. Part of it is the sense that declining local news is, well, a local concern, not a national one.

But what if it has in fact helped enable the biggest crisis the country is now facing, the rise of an authoritarian president? Evidence for this is mounting. In April, Politico reported that in counties with the smallest percentages of households subscribing to audited news sources, Donald Trump did better in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012, but in counties with higher percentages of news subscribers, Romney did better than Trump. A study of 2016 survey data found that Trump enjoyed the support of significantly more "low information" voters--that is, people who literally knew less about the issues--than Hillary voters that year or Romney voters in 2012. Also, the places where Trump voters typically reside--exurbs, rural areas, and small cities and towns--are where local news coverage has been in steepest decline.

All this evidence is correlation, not causation. We still don't know for sure that losing access to objective local news made people more likely to support Trump than they would have been otherwise. But it sure seems likelier than not. Local news outlets tend to be highly trusted. When they disappear, partisan national media like Fox News and social networks like Facebook fill the void. Without trusted local news to provide a check, voters are more likely to accept the lies and propaganda coming out of these other sources. Fun fact: Trump has more Twitter followers--fifty-three million--than the number of subscribers for all newspapers, print and digital, in the country.

Here's another stat you might not know but that probably won't surprise you: In 2004, one out of eight U.S. reporters worked in New York, Washington, or Los Angeles; in 2014, almost one out of five did. The forces that have annihilated independent local media in vast parts of the country are well known: the migration of classified advertising to websites like Craigslist; the disappearance of competing locally owned businesses that once relied on local media to reach customers; the purchase of local media by distantly owned chains that are more interested in extracting profits than investing in news gathering; the loss of digital advertising to...

To continue reading