To Strengthen Democracy, Read Your Newspaper

Newspapers are facing unprecedented challenges at a time when independent and aggressive journalism is more important than ever.

Millions of Americans have been alarmed, and rightly so, by President Trump’s relentless attacks on the news media and his dismissal of stories that are critical of him and his administration as “fake news.”

Trump’s assault raises the specter of a government crackdown on independent reporting. It comes as news organizations, particularly newspapers, are in crisis. Newspaper circulation has declined for 28 consecutive years and advertising revenue fell from $49 billion in 2006 to $18 billion in 2016. Many publishers, particularly in small and medium-sized cities, have answered the revenue decline with dramatic cuts to newsroom staffs, accelerating the decline in readership as a lack of coverage gives remaining readers less reason to renew their subscriptions.

A report over the weekend in Politico suggests that the trends are working to Trump’s benefit and likely played an important role in his election.

Using subscription data assembled by the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that tracks newspaper circulation, Politico reports that Trump ran strongest in 2016 in counties where newspaper circulation has declined most.

The major findings include:

  • Trump in 2016 polled better than fellow Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 in areas with fewer households subscribing to news outlets; he fared worse that Romney in areas with higher subscription rates.
  • Trump struggled against Hillary Clinton in places with more news subscribers: Counties in the top 10 percent of subscription rates were twice as likely to be carried by Clinton as those in the lowest 10 percent. Clinton was also more than 3.7 times as likely to beat Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in counties in the top 10 percent of news subscribers compared to those in news deserts – the lowest 10 percent.
  • Trump’s share of the vote tended to drop in accordance with the amount of homes with news subscriptions: For every 10 percent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points.

While print subscription numbers are declining, national news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which have been aggressive in covering the administration, report increases in their online subscriptions. Those advances cover only part of the revenue lost on the print product, however, and have not been matched on subscription sites run by news outlets that focus on local and regional coverage.

“The collapse of local media institutions has kind of broken the foundation of political engagement in our country, which historically began at the local level,” Lee Shaker, a political communications scholar at Portland State University, told Politico.

“There’s a lot that we’ve underestimated or overlooked in how people get information that has consequences for pretty broad things — not only whether you voted in the mayoral election, but whether you trust your neighbor or trust the government at all,” Shaker added.

Penny Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who has researched the decline of local news outlets, told Politico that as people give up their newspaper subscriptions, they become increasingly open to the unfiltered – and opinionated – messages that Trump sends on Twitter and other social media outlets.

Trump’s 50 million Twitter followers now exceed the total number of U.S. newspaper subscribers, which peaks at 38 million on Sundays.

 “Without having the newspaper as kind of ‘true north’ to point you to issues, you are left to look for other sources,” Abernathy said. “And because of the dramatic rise in social media, that ends up being your Facebook friends.”


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