Thousands of local newspapers have disappeared across the United States over the past 15 years. Half of U.S. counties have only one local paper — and some have none at all.
This decline of local news decreases civic engagement, increases polarization, and threatens American democracy.
As newspapers shrink and disappear, communities are less informed, and citizens are less civically engaged. When local news outlets stop reporting on city councils meetings, state government debates and Congressional representatives, political knowledge decreases. Individuals are then less likely to have opinions about their local representatives and are less equipped to participate in their local democracy. As a result, when local coverage decreases, communities see lower voter turnout rates and fewer candidates on the ballot for local office.
American democracy depends on civic engagement — voting on local ballot issues, electing candidates who represent voter’s values and checking political leader’s power. But, as voter turnout decreases, elected officials are less connected to and less representative of their constituents.
This phenomenon is fueled by the decline of local media — a worrying trend that is occurring across the United States, including in my hometown Cleveland, OH.
I grew up reading my local newspaper, The Plain Dealer, each morning at the breakfast table. As my family and I traded sections of the paper — swapping the local news for the entertainment section and arguing over who read the comics first, — I learned about local infrastructure issues and city council meetings.
But, as I grew older and taller, The Plain Dealer grew thinner and smaller. The paper reduced circulation to just four days a week and filled their pages with skimpy national syndicated stories in place of detailed accounts of local governance.
Over the past few decades, many local American newspapers, like The Plain Dealer, faced decreased circulation and lower ad revenue. These papers laid off reporters and limited circulation — becoming ghosts of their former selves.
These “ghost papers” are often owned by large investment groups who prioritize profit over quality reporting. New owners aggressively cut costs by thinning papers’ staffs meaning that there are fewer reporters to cover city council meetings and policy debates. Papers also dedicate fewer resources to time-intensive investigative reporting — essential stories which hold public officials accountable, uncover corruption and reveal systemic issues. So, while ghost papers are still published, the papers’ volume and variety dwindle, and voters lose essential political knowledge.
Citizens often turn to national news outlets to fill gaps left by their weakened local media. As a result, citizens often know more about national issues than debates in their own backyards. However, Americans trust these mainstream news outlets less than their local media — so Americans are increasingly consuming news perceived as less credible.
National news outlets also focus more on partisan conflict and frame issues along party lines. According to political scientist Joshua Darr, local news outlets provide an alternative to this national partisan coverage since debates over library funding and city maintenance tend to divide communities in ways unconnected to party lines.
However, as local coverage declines, communities begin to frame local debates in a national partisan lens. As a result, Americans become more entrenched in their political camps. In fact, voters who lose their local newspapers are more likely to vote for a single political party up and down their ballot. So, as local issues are nationalized, communities become more partisan and more polarized.
This polarization threatens American democracy.
Political Scientists Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt warn that polarization can “destroy democratic norms.” Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the survival of democracy depends on political parties who work together to defeat extremist politicians. However, as citizens divide into dueling partisan groups, parties are less likely unite to protect democracy.
With increased partisanship, political camps begin to view each other as “existential threats” rather than just political rivals. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, this breakdown of mutual toleration degrades democratic norms. When political parties perceive lost elections as catastrophic, partisan actors are willing to do whatever it takes to win — abandoning restraint and breaking democratic norms to maintain their power.
These forces of democratic erosion are at work in America today. As American political polarization dramatically increased over the past 20 years, American democracy weakened — with political parties questioning each other’s legitimacy and political candidates challenging election results. And with a weakened local media environment, these events are primarily covered by partisan national media outlets, contributing to greater polarization.
Communities can act against democratic erosion by reversing the trend of increasing polarization — and they can do so by strengthening local media. According to Darr, polarization slows down when local news outlets focus coverage on local issues instead of national politics. As polarization decreases, political knowledge, voter turnout and civic engagement all increase.
There are hopeful signs in Cleveland where two nonprofit newsrooms are launching later this year. One run by the Marshall Project will investigate the Cuyahoga County justice system, and a second larger coalition titled the Ohio News Initiative will focus on community-oriented stories. These newsrooms will publish investigative, local stories that inform voters — filling gaps left by the shrinking Plain Dealer.
We all can strengthen local media by supporting local journalism. By working together to reverse the decline in local newspapers, communities can come together to act against polarization and strengthen democracy.
 Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “The Guardrails of Democracy.” Essay. In How Democracies Die, 97–117. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2019.