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.
Hi Madeline, I thought this was a great read! I share your concerns about the decline of local newspapers, and I find your argument connecting the increased consumption of nationalized news coverage to political polarization very persuasive. One additional facet of this discussion that I was curious about is whether this phenomenon applies only to local newspapers, or to local news coverage on television as well. It seems to me that the decline in local newspapers may simply be because print media, in general, is declining – both local and national papers have suffered from a decline in readership and circulation. However, perhaps citizens can still learn about local issues by replacing local newspapers with local TV news in their information diet. If so, then local TV stations may provide a crucial bulwark to prevent further polarization in the U.S.
Hello Madeline! Your article really made me reconsider the role of physical, local newspapers in civil engagement. I additionally believe that the digitalization of news may also serve to influence polarization. As websites and social media begin to replace printed news, it becomes easier to track national outlets and stories that confirm one’s biases and worldviews, leading one to become further entrenched in their beliefs instead of challenging them. While this may be worrying, it seems difficult to say that print media will see a reemergence in our increasingly digital age. Could one maybe make the argument that local media could again become prevalent if focus is shifted toward making local news more accessible online? If so, local media may have to compete with national news networks to pull in readers. This may lead to catchy titles and reports on polarizing events that attract readers, which could unfortunately further cause polarization. How then could local media increase its number of readers in our modern age while maintaining an objective, factual account of local events?
Hi Madeline! I loved reading your piece on the importance of local newspapers in civic engagement; I recently read a piece on the New York Times about the same issue, so it was interesting to read about it from your perspective. You mention that people think that the National news sites are less credible than local newspapers, but national newspapers typically have greater fact-checking than local newspapers and the reporters are typically more prominent in the field; So I wonder what the reason is behind people finding national newspapers more credible. I also agree that local newspapers can reduce polarisation, and that is such an interesting and often-ignored perspective on reduction of polarisation! Great Job!
Hey Madeline! This was a really informative and necessary article—thank you for writing it (and doing such a good job of it!). As an editor and reporter at my campus paper, I think about these issues a lot. Having independent funding makes a huge difference in the types of stories that we can pursue, and producing consistent coverage of local politics also allows the journalists to be more in tune with the local community, which leads to better story tips coming our way. I’ve read several accounts of cash-strapped student newspapers’ having to turn to their universities for money, thus sacrificing their editorial independence and limiting the extent to which they can pursue investigations of their institutions.
When you mention that newspapers “prioritize profit over quality reporting,” I’m reminded of the concept that to a certain extent, democracy is also a commodity. In the American political scene of the past decade, two major candidates, Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, have staged presidential campaigns in large part because of their wealth, while other candidates have had to cut their campaigns short because they ran out of money. While it might be a stretch to say that democracy can be “bought” or “sold,” financial considerations are certainly a factor, and that can also bleed into reporting. Internationally, several aspiring autocrats—Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, even Canada’s Justin Trudeau—have taken steps to purchase, nationalize, and restrict their countries’ media companies, often in service of promoting particular narratives or preventing the spread of ones that they consider harmful. This is less of an issue in the United States because the Constitution protects the freedom of the press, but I can certainly imagine your argument being applicable to other countries and concerning to their citizens.
(Oh, incidentally—Margaret Sullivan, whose reporting you linked in the opening paragraph, was once the editor of The Buffalo News, my local paper!)
Hi Madeline! Thank you for your piece on the decline of small/local newspapers. I didn’t really read my local newspaper growing up the way you did, but had a similar experience with a different reporting system when I lived abroad last year during the pandemic. The news I watched and read while in Taiwan was still on the national level, but since the country of Taiwan is much smaller than the US (it’s about the size of the state of Maryland), there was more focus on local communities. One important distinction between the two versions of news was the decreased turnover in the news cycle: Taiwan is still reporting on the Hong Kong-China conflict for example. As a kid watching ABC News, there was always follow up on issues and reports on developments; it could focus more on stories. Whereas the news I see nowadays has so many stories, it’s easy to get lost and forget what I was reading yesterday. Do you think the increased turnover contributes to the polarization and politicization of stories? Is it to contract readers’ attention or a convenient shorthand for writers to convey contextual information to the reader?
Hi Madeline! Thanks for the informative blog on the issues that local newspapers are currently facing. It seems like this problem stems from the fact that large investment groups are buying out struggling newspapers and other media sources and transforming them to either report more national news or reduce the amount of quality reporting that these local media outlets do. An example of an investment group I’m aware that does is Sinclair Broadcasting Group, though they focus more on television. Is a possible avenue of bringing local news back to the former importance it once had is using the FCC and other regulatory bodies to prevent groups like Sinclair from buying out smaller news companies?