The Decline of Small Newspapers Means Higher Risk of Local Corruption in the U.S.

There is widespread consensus that a free, objective press plays an important role in fighting corruption and holding public officials accountable (see here, here, and here). That’s why, when countries with high levels of public corruption seek to silence investigative journalists or shutter unbiased news outlets, anticorruption organizations like Transparency International are vocal in their opposition. It’s a bit surprising, then, that so little has been said about how the decline of small newspapers in the United States has increased the risk of local corruption.

The decline of small newspapers in the United States has been precipitous. Between 2004 and 2018, there was a net loss of nearly 1,800 papers, over 1,000 of which had circulations under 5,000. Today, around half of all counties in the United States only have one local newspaper, often circulating only on a weekly basis, while nearly 200 counties don’t have a single newspaper—resulting in “news deserts,” defined as communities “with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots levels.” Furthermore, in many of the small- and medium-circulation outlets that remain, newsrooms have been gutted, often due to layoffs imposed by their parent companies. For example, Digital First Media, a publisher that owns more than 50 newspapers, has eliminated two-thirds of all newspaper staff since 2011.  Between 2001 and 2016, employment in the U.S. newspaper industry decreased by more than 50%.

The decline of small newspapers is just one component of a shifting media landscape in the United States. Some of the other trends, like the rise of social media and the proliferation of unverified and sometimes apocryphal online new sources, have been at the center of political discourse. The decline of small newspapers, on the other hand, is often lamented as a regrettable casualty of changing times, but there isn’t enough appreciation of the fact that the decline of small newspapers poses a risk of increased local corruption.

Although large papers like the New York Times and Washington Post tend to get the most attention for investigative reporting in the United States, most corruption in the U.S. happens under the radar of national news outlets. It’s newspapers like the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader in Pennsylvania (circulation of 15,000-20,000) or the Willamette Week (circulation of 50,000-55,000) in Portland, Oregon, that offer the best line of defense against state and local corruption. (The Times-Leader won the Society for Professional Journalist’s investigative reporting award for the paper’s role in unearthing a county-wide corruption scandal in 2009, while the Willamette Week’s 2014 investigation exposed the corrupt activities of Oregon’s First Lady, Cynthia Hayes.) And these are but examples. There are countless local newspapers that have done terrific investigative work fighting corruption in local government.

As these small newspapers lose capacity or close down completely, communities lose a vital anticorruption watchdog. As journalist Margaret Sullivan put it back in 2018: “One problem with losing local coverage is that we never know what we don’t know. Corruption can flourish, taxes can rise, public officials can indulge their worst impulses.” And we can’t expect larger newspapers to fill the void left by declining local outlets. Even the most well-resourced newspapers, like the New York Times, do not have the resources to send reporters to cover places like Wilkes-Barre, or even Portland. In the best case scenario, reporters from a regional paper – think the Philadelphia Enquirer or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the case of Wilkes-Barre – will pay marginally more attention to places lacking strong local coverage. But there will be nobody to do the tedious work of local reporting that quietly holds local officials accountable, like attending every City Council session and school board meeting. (In a handful of communities, student journalists have stepped up to fill the void left by local newspaper closures. For example, after the Ann Arbor News stopped printing in 2009, the University of Michigan’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, increased its coverage of municipal affairs, and has been able to cover a tremendous breadth issues. But most communities don’t have an elite public university standing by.)

Although it’s impossible to measure how much the decline of local newspapers has increased U.S. corruption, the deterrent effect of media on corruption is well-substantiated in cross-national research, and there’s little reason to think the U.S. is an exception to this general pattern. Moreover, the decline in local newspapers can affect corruption through other, less direct channels. For instance, civic engagement declines in cities following major newspaper closures, and there is some compelling evidence that civic engagement is inversely correlated with corruption.

So, what is to be done? It may seem unreasonable to try to engineer market demand for an industry whose decline was precipitated by larger structural forces. But there are two ways to provide continuous financial support to local journalism, both of which make a great deal of sense once we recognize that local media is providing substantial public goods—including detection and deterrence of local corruption: private philanthropy and government funding.

  • Private Philanthropy. Some local media organizations have explored making a transition from a revenue-based model to a philanthropy-based model, relying on donations rather than (or in addition to) subscription and advertising revenue. The IRS’s recent decision to allow the Salt Lake Tribune to convert to a non-profit organization adds more promise to this model. A 2019 study found that Americans value local media and, when informed of the dire financial situation facing many local news organizations, responded with considerably higher interest in donating to organizations that support local journalism. This potential for community support of local journalism would be enhanced if the United States followed in Canada’s footsteps by making news subscriptions tax deductible, a proposal endorsed by a 2019 Brookings Institution report. In addition to dispersed private donations, one could also envision larger organizations focused on providing support (financial and otherwise) for local journalists. For example, the Colorado Media Project, founded in 2018 with support from a handful of foundations, focuses on building “capacity, collaboration and community” within the state’s media ecosystem, with a focus on local-level journalists and outlets. A philanthropic model could be a game-changer for outlets currently on the brink of closure and larger outlets seeking to avoid newsroom layoffs. That said, reliance on private philanthropy does also create a potential conflict of interest if outlets were to become overly dependent on specific donors, and measures are needed to address this problem. It’s also not clear whether a philanthropic model will be sufficient to revive local journalism in news deserts. Nevertheless, this model offers promise for existing outlets that enjoy particularly strong rapports with their communities.
  • Government Support. The recognition that local journalism provides public goods strengthens the case for government subsidies. Some state governments have already explored this possibility. For example, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which is funded by the New Jersey state government, provides such support. And some people, including former presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, have floated the idea of a federal fund to support local media outlets. Such efforts could be especially effective if they prioritize reporting in news deserts and other communities lacking robust local reporting. It is vital, however, that government programs for funding of media include strict rules to prevent conflicts of interest or interference (direct or implicit) with journalistic or editorial decisions. (The New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, for example, is governed by laws specifying that neither the state government nor the Consortium is granted any editorial control.)

Neither of these measures will guarantee the continued viability of local journalism. But they are worth pursuing. More generally, these and other strategies for preserving local investigative journalism ought to be a priority for the U.S. anticorruption community, as the decline of local newspapers is leaving major gaps in the U.S. anticorruption fabric.

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