As local media disappears there is void of answers to the question, what will take its place. The ability of citizens to check the government has long been a necessary virtue for the success of a democracy. It is no mystery that for every effective and successful government there is an active and informed population behind it. But that assumption may soon be only an echo from the past as access to news becomes less and less achievable. Since the election of Trump, the media has shifted into a public enemy, but arguably more concerning, it is starting to disappear where it is needed most.
In the United States, roughly 200 of the 3,143 counties lost their local newspaper. This results in over 2,000 counties that have no daily paper. Regrettably, the U.S. newspaper crisis is only growing as more than 1 in 5 local papers have had to close since 2004. According to data from researchers at the University of North Carolina, 1,800 local papers have merged or closed since 2004. Overall readers of newspapers have decreased by 11% and 10% for Weekday and Sunday readers. These increasingly growing areas without local journalism to cover the area are referred to as news deserts. These deserts are often areas where Americans are older, poorer and less educated than an average American citizen. This is concerning because these demographics are already underrepresented and as a result, it is easier for government institutions to take advantage of them.
Not only have more newspapers closed but the newspapers that still exist have faced extreme layoffs along with intense downsizing. This means that coverage local and state government have been hit specifically hard as the number of statehouse reporters has fallen by nearly 40 percent. This extreme decrease in local accountably has real consequences because government officials no longer have to fear the intense scrutiny of tough and independent journalism.
As a result of the prevalence of the internet, it feels as though media is all around us, rather than disappearing. More people than ever are receiving their information online, particularly through social media. Of course, online sources are receiving fewer subscriptions then their paper counterparts used to. Due to this decrease in income, online journalism is mainly reliant on ads. But the only way that this is applicable is if you have a large enough number of individuals visiting your site. Local media not only does not have the resources to effectively market their stories but even more dire they lack an audience large enough to gain enough support from advertisers. And even major productions like the New York Times are dealing with fewer recourses then they are used to. As a result, they are unable to cover every, or even some, county budget meeting. The accountability that we once relied on journalism to achieve is not only disappearing but is resulting in legislative consequences.
A study performed by researchers from the University of Illinois and the University surveyed counties with two to three newspapers. They found that, after adjusting the increase compared counties in a similar position, three years after a newspaper the county had increased their borrowing costs by a.12 percent point increase and the effects were even starker in counties where their only local news source closed. A lack of local newspaper coverage has serious financial consequences for local governments, and that alternative news sources are not filling the gaps.
In those same counties, the wages for the politicians also increased. This is no real surprise when you take into account that when the government is closer to the people corruption is more likely. Because the national government has such a far-reaching influence there is constant coverage and investigation in regard to the legality of their actions. Those checks often do not exist for local government. This is because when individuals can easily access their officials it is also easier for them to bribe them. Nepotism is also much more likely to take hold as local office often are power hungry. It is also a lot harder to refuse a 20 for a speeding ticket at the end of a county road than it is to ignore offers from unknown accounts on a government computer. This increased sensitivity makes it even more important to protect the local government. Because as citizens are exposed to less coverage their ability to evaluate their member of Congress decreases, they are also less likely to develop and express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and even less likely to vote. This is an unfortunate reality for citizens regardless of their previous level of political awareness.
These realities have serious consequences for democracy. It welcomes in an era where local government is no longer held accountable for their actions. This can result in things no longer getting done and the threat that civil liberties will not be protected. Because liberty and a functioning government institution is not a passive right our institutions will deteriorate if they are not held accountable. Often when we think about the importance of democracy we focus on the national level. But local governments by far have the most day to day impact on the lives of Americans, not only due to their policies but also as a result of the magnitude of the number of people under their discretion. In fact, most individuals who are employed by a government institution are employed by state and local governments. It is essential to protect democracy at the subnational level because when local governments fall it is easier for federal institutions to follow in suit. So perhaps paying the increased price of your local paper is worth it after all.