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

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 monopoly platforms like Facebook and Google. 

But these media-specific causes are really a subset of broader trends that have reshaped the American economy. A few decades ago Washington began systematically dismantling a previous century’s worth of laws and policies that once allowed all parts of the country to compete: financial rules that protected locally owned banks; airline regulations which ensured that the cost of flights in and out of small cities was about the same as for large cities; antitrust measures that kept one or a few large corporations from gobbling up small competitors and dominating markets. As a result, a handful of cities, mostly on the coasts, where the oligopolies are headquartered, have enjoyed unparalleled growth while the rest of the country has fallen further and further behind, with rural and exurban areas hit the hardest. The downwardly mobile residents of this middle 90 percent of the country have consequently become more receptive to a right-wing populism that promises to bring their jobs and communities back, even as it attacks the foundations of our democracy. And there are fewer healthy, trusted local newspapers to dissuade them.

That’s not to say that most small-town newspapers are, or ever were, bastions of liberalism. Even back in the day, many of their editorial pages leaned right, sometimes hard right. But in part for that reason, their conservative readers tended to trust the reporting delivered in the rest of the pages. And much of that reporting reflected broader thinking. For day-to-day coverage of national politics, small-town papers typically reprinted reported stories from the major metropolitan dailies and national chains. A newspaper subscriber in rural Missouri in the early 1970s was reading many of the same stories about the Nixon/McGovern race or the Watergate scandal as readers on the coasts. 

Also, many of the young reporters who worked for these papers—or at local radio and TV stations—were not themselves locals. They were from bigger cities and suburbs, fresh out of college and following the prescribed career path of journalism: start at a small-town outlet, bust ass, move to a slightly bigger town outlet, bust ass, and keep moving up until you make it to the Los Angeles Times or NBC Nightly News. Mostly, they reported on school board meetings and road closures, but to the extent that they wrote about politics—covering, say, a debate between candidates for a local congressional seat—the route to getting ahead was to report the story straight.

I didn’t follow that career path, but one of my early jobs in journalism was Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, where I would pitch story ideas to my editors back in Washington. My dirty little secret was that I gleaned many of the best ideas from local and regional papers in my area. Absent that good local reporting, there’s really no way I would have known what was going on. That is still true for reporters at national publications—but now they have fewer local publications feeding them the intel. 

On the flip side, local and regional media once had a real presence in Washington. Papers like the Indianapolis Star, the Denver Post, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune had Washington bureaus with multiple reporters who covered the local congressional delegation and aspects of Washington policymaking that affected local industries.

These correspondents often knew more about the substance of specific issues than anyone else in the press corps; if you wanted insight on, say, the Army Corps of Engineers’ management of river barge traffic, Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was your guy. Even papers from smaller cities and towns that couldn’t afford a full-time Washington correspondent could, for a modest fee, purchase Washington reporting from agencies like the States News Service tailored to their local concerns.

Almost all of this kind of journalism is now gone. The business model of local news simply can’t support it. There are still plenty of reporters ably covering the minute substance of policy in Washington. They just don’t get a chance to write for average people. Most are “paywall journalists” at places like Politico Pro whose audiences are lobbyists, corporate executives, Hill staffers, Wall Street traders, think tank researchers, contractors, regulators, and trade association policy wonks. Average Americans who sense that elites have an unfair inside track on what’s really happening in Washington are absolutely right. 

The collapse of local news is an important contributor to congressional dysfunction and extreme partisanship. Most lawmakers today have few, if any, reporters from news outlets back home who cover them consistently. So their connection to constituents is weaker than ever. The views most voters have about Congress today are shaped not so much by the members they elect (who’s my congressman, again?) but by the congressional leaders they see on national TV. Individual members thus have less and less independent power, and are more and more puppets of party leaders, major donors, and the tiny group of highly partisan voters who show up for primaries. They also have less and less incentive to learn the issues and deliver results important to their constituents. Why bother, when the voters have no way of knowing whether you’re actually doing your job? 

All of these tendencies are more acute on the Republican side, where the anti-democratic forces are also most intense. Plenty of GOP lawmakers are sickened by Trump and will say so—off the record. Some might even be willing to break with their party over, say, the Russia probe. But they would feel a lot braver if they thought their Republican-voting constituents would cut them some slack for voting their consciences because they understand and appreciate their work on locally relevant issues. Thanks to the collapse of local journalism, few lawmakers today have that kind of relationship with the folks back home. They are mostly just names with an “R” or a “D” next to them.

There are several ways we might begin to reverse the decline of local news. One is for philanthropists to step in where markets have failed—and that’s happening. Hundreds of local and regional outlets, like the Texas Tribune and Vermont’s VTDigger, have popped up around the country, mostly funded by foundations and wealthy donors. Many are doing excellent work. One of the most interesting—and potentially scalable—experiments is Report for America, a philanthropic-supported nonprofit cofounded by Charles Sennott and Steven Waldman. A sort of AmeriCorps for journalism, Report for America gives stipends to reporters who are willing to work in understaffed local newsrooms. The outlets match the stipends with their own funds plus money raised from local philanthropies, thus providing the reporters with full salaries. The year-old operation has so far installed about a dozen journalists in small-town papers, with plans to deploy 1,000 by 2023—though there’s no reason it couldn’t place ten times that many, with sufficient philanthropic support. The need for journalistic manpower is vast: the number of newspaper employees in the United States dropped from 456,300 in 1990 to about 183,000 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

In addition to philanthropic interventions, the federal government can take actions aimed at making local news broadly profitable again. A simple, practical first step would be for government to increase spending on “public notices”—those ads you see announcing upcoming public hearings or bidding opportunities for contractors, a transparency practice mandated by law that goes back to the dawn of the republic—and steer more of those dollars to local news outlets. But more radical moves will also be required—specifically, forcing social media platforms to distribute a much bigger share of the ad revenue they make on news stories to the organizations that originally gathered the news. 

The idea of Washington mucking around in the news market gives many people the willies, journalists most of all. But they need to get over it. In Article 1 of the Constitution, the framers specifically charged the federal government with establishing postal offices and postal roads—the cutting-edge system of distributing news in the late eighteenth century. In the Postal Act of 1792, they went further, mandating subsidized postal rates for news publications. (These subsidies lasted until 1970, when Congress foolishly began phasing them out.) The Founding Fathers would be apoplectic knowing that Americans have allowed the distribution of news to be controlled by a handful of unaccountable private tech companies. 

It is hard right now, admittedly, to imagine either party committing itself to reforms like these. Republicans are too wedded to libertarian ideas to even contemplate such policies, even though the change would benefit the small towns and rural areas they supposedly represent. And while Democrats wouldn’t be opposed ideologically, and are warming to the idea of taking on corporate monopolies, some of them have written off rural and small-town America as irrevocably hostile to Democratic entreaties. 

Nevertheless, a way forward politically has to be found. (I take a stab at this elsewhere in this issue—see “Winning Is Not Enough”) Because the evidence is telling us that the rise of authoritarianism, the erosion of local economies, and the collapse of local media are all connected, and it will be hard to solve the first without dealing with the other two.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.