< Paper Trail


Friday, April 03, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Every week it seems a two-newspaper town becomes a one-newspaper town, or a one-newspaper town becomes a no-newspaper town. Many media watchers say the trend is bad for journalism but, according to a new study published by Princeton professor Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, the death of newspapers is also hazardous to democracy.

SAM SCHULHOFER-WOHL: We studied the impact of the closing of The Cincinnati Post on municipal elections in some suburbs of Cincinnati, and we found that the closing of The Post reduced voter turnout and reduced the number of people running for office, and raised the chance that incumbents would be reelected.

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the environment in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area, let's say, a decade ago.

SAM SCHULHOFER-WOHL: There used to be two daily newspapers there, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Cincinnati Post, and The Post historically had much more coverage and much more circulation in Northern Kentucky, which is where the suburbs are that we study.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, there are many variables that can affect election turnout, from the relative safety of congressional seats to the weather on Election Day. How do you know that the newspaper competition variable figured more heavily than those other factors?

SAM SCHULHOFER-WOHL: We look at 48 different suburbs, and in some of them The Post was providing virtually all of the coverage of that town, and in others there was a lot of competition between The Post and Enquirer and so there were a lot of stories in The Enquirer, as well. So you might think that the town where The Enquirer was not writing very much lost a lot more when The Post closed and the towns where The Enquirer was writing a lot of stories didn't lose as much. So we can think of these towns where The Enquirer was very present as a control group. Those towns tell us what would have happened if The Post had not closed. And so we see, well, how much did turnout change between 2004 and 2008 in those towns? And, of course, it goes up a whole lot because of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. And then we can look at the other towns where The Post was very important and we see the turnout goes up less in those towns. And so there’s a gap between how much turnout went up in the towns where The Enquirer was very present and how much it went up in towns where The Post was really providing almost all the coverage. That gap is the effect of The Post closing.

BOB GARFIELD: So it’s tempting, in the face of this data, to conclude that the death of newspapers can genuinely harm our democracy. Can your results be extrapolated so broadly?

SAM SCHULHOFER-WOHL: I would be very careful, for two reasons. One is we have quite a small sample, we're looking at 48 towns. And there’s only so much you can say about these towns, so our estimates are statistically uncertain. And the second thing is we're studying only the suburbs of Cincinnati and only the closing of this particular newspaper, The Cincinnati Post, and it’s hard to know how much we can extrapolate from Cincinnati to other cities that have recently lost newspapers, such as Denver or Seattle. Both those cities may be very different in terms of how people get their news and the kind of coverage that was in the papers that closed there may be very different, as well. And we’d really need to conduct more studies of other cities to find out.

BOB GARFIELD: So let's say other researchers independently conduct studies just like that and come up with essentially parallel results, any thoughts as to, okay, having determined that newspapers are important to democracy, what we should do next?

SAM SCHULHOFER-WOHL: I think that the policy should not necessarily be to try to preserve ink printed on newsprint and thrown on people’s doorsteps every morning, because what’s important here is not that method of delivering the information. It’s all of the reporting and organizing of information that goes on in newsrooms. And right now that tends to happen largely in the newsrooms of printed newspapers, but there’s no necessary reason why it has to be newsrooms of printed newspapers in the future. What we need to figure out as citizens or as policymakers is where the money is going to come from to have those kind of newsrooms in the future.

BOB GARFIELD: Sam, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Professor Sam Schulhofer-Wohl is an assistant professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University.