As the Internet becomes more omnipresent in people’s lives, newspapers have been declining — losing ad revenue and readership, and in the case of several major publications, disappearing altogether. But besides forcing citizens of these communities to get their news fix digitally rather than the old-fashioned way, what effect does the loss of the broadsheet have? A study suggests that it causes citizens to become less engaged.
In the study “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” published in the journal Political Communication, Lee Shaker of Portland State University analyzed the civic engagement data in the 2008 and 2009 Current Population Survey to see what happened in Seattle when its Post-Intelligencer became an online-only publication in 2009, and in Denver when its Rocky Mountain News eased publication completely in 2009. Shaker studied civic engagement as measured through such activities as participating in local groups like PTAs and neighborhood watch committees, contacting elected officials, and buying or boycotting certain products because of the values their companies espouse. He found significant declines in several of these areas in Denver and Seattle compared to 16 other cities that maintained their newspapers during the same period.
Shaker concludes, “The advent of new communication opportunities suggests that new forms of engagement will also develop. Thus far, there are many questions about the importance of place online: why should any one place matter when we may all be virtual and interconnected? And yet, our society is still geographically organized and governed. Ultimately, if we desire healthy and productive democratic communities, then the provisioning of local news — which helps tie citizens to each other and their communities — must continue.”
The New York Times, Gawker, and Salon aren’t going to report on the city council meetings in your town, which may be one reason why some digital titans have begun propping up the old-fashioned news source. So while the newspaper may be a shopworn institution, it provides a service to democracy that no other entity can so far replace.