You haven’t heard of the Nieman Journalism Lab because you’re not a nerd. The lab is based at Harvard University, which means I’ll never see the front door.
A few weeks ago, Nieman published an article titled, “Want to reduce political polarization? Save your local newspaper.” The article, written by Joshua P. Darr, Johanna Dunaway and Matthew P. Hitt (smart people use middle initials), hypothesized that the loss of local news has played a major role in the way we vote in local elections.
I know most of you will have a hard time reading past those two paragraphs: Saturday morning coffee sessions are not designed for deciphering Harvard-level research projects. But stay with me if you can, because this is, ultimately, about you and me and the neighbor across the street.
Let me summarize the article as best I can: In a whole lot of cities (and snug communities like ours), there is virtually no local news product left. Sure, there’s still Facebook and NextDoor, but those are not generators of local news. Those are friends with fried food recipes and daily conspiracy theories. The only real news on social media sites is written by – you guessed it – real journalists.
What the article tells readers, in gruesome detail, is that local news is disappearing fast. Want facts? Try these:
“In 2006, American newspapers sold over $49 billion in ads, employed more than 74,000 people and circulated to 52 million Americans on weekdays,” the article said. “By 2017, ad revenues were down to $16.5 billion (a 66 percent drop); the newspaper workforce fell by 47 percent, to just over 39,000; and weekday circulation fell below 31 million.”
Obviously, it feels like I’m penning my own obituary, but what the authors found next is fascinating.
When people don’t have local sources of news, they take the tenor of the national dialogue and apply it to their own streets, their own homeowners’ associations, their own city councils and their own legislative districts.
Here’s how the article describes it:
“If people are consuming more nationalized news when their local newspapers decline, they might become more polarized themselves and vote accordingly,” the authors wrote. “American politics became more polarized along party lines over the past 50 years. National news focuses on that polarization and conflict, covering the partisan fights in Washington and framing politics as a game with winners and losers. In doing so, national news makes the parties seem more different and emphasizes their conflicts.”
Sure enough, the hypothesis of these researchers was accurate. In cities where there is no local news source, there is a noticeable increase in voters who cast straight-party tickets.
Now, how does that apply to you, me and the neighbor across the street?
One glance at a phone, tablet, computer or TV, and you are inundated with national news about the disgusting political divide in this country. The divide isn’t new, but the countless ways to disseminate information along party lines makes it nearly impossible to avoid. And as we’re all wanton to do, we tend to cater our news consumption to the sources we agree with most.
Among all the sour consequences of such an obtrusive national media landscape, the worst is that we’re taking the D.C. vitriol and spreading it down our streets.
In the Nieman Journalism Lab’s report, they looked specifically at how the national dialogue has impacted local elections. And as mentioned, they found that more people vote straight-ticket in cities where there isn’t a strong news source. They also came to an interesting conclusion.
“Local newspapers provide a valuable service to democracy by keeping readers’ focus on their communities,” the article said. “When they lose local newspapers, we have found, readers turn to their political partisanship to inform their political choices. If Americans can tear themselves away from the spectacle in Washington and support local news… it could help push back against the partisan polarization that has taken over American politics today.”
Believe it or not, I’m not using the Nieman Lab’s study to grovel for more support of The Leader. Instead, what seems important is how this polarization among people – and not just political – can be seen far too often in our own community.
In the past year, I’ve been involved in the coverage of some tenuous “battles” among neighbors, and I’ve seen people who live next door to each other stop speaking. In other instances, I’ve seen angry mobs of citizens begin petitions to stop one thing or another, without ever sitting down and having a conversation about the real issues that matter. Whether it’s a store with a gripe against a landlord, a group of neighbors mad about a development, or a neighborhood trying to reorganize itself, there’s too much Washington washing away our neighborhoods.
In national politics, there have always been antagonists. In a sense, Washington, D.C., was designed with its slate walls and enormous buildings to have people fight over the ability to control the doors of the Capitol.
But that’s not how our neighborhoods were built. In most cases, we choose areas we want to live because we like the homes, the yards, the schools, the local businesses and the people who live across the street. When we have concerns or issues, we talk about them and fix them. When we don’t like loud music or bright lights shining through our windows, we ask for (and usually get) consideration.
In this day of national political polarization, what we see – more than ever – is that we resort to tactics designed for the fiercest of fights on a national level.
That’s not what neighborhoods are for, and that’s certainly not how we should treat a neighbor.
If I took anything from the Nieman Lab’s research, it wasn’t even about the black holes of local news. Instead, it’s a telling indictment that we’ve allowed petty politics to move from the insipid streets of D.C. into our neighborhoods and their associations. If local news can help stop that, we’re more than willing.