Before embarking on a career in academia, Professor of Political Science Danny Hayes worked as a reporter for a small newspaper in West Texas. Along with 11 other journalists, he covered the kinds of local government stories that fly under the big media radar, from school board meetings to county elections.
“Local newspapers have traditionally been an important part of civic life,” he said. “They have been ubiquitous. People started their day with their coffee and their hometown paper.”
Hayes moved on—and so did the news landscape. Over the past two decades, rigorous local journalism outlets have all but disappeared. Decimated by declining advertising revenue, plummeting readership and the proliferation of the Internet, hundreds of newspapers have been shuttered and those that remain are “essentially shells of their former selves,” Hayes said. Newspapers in big cities and small towns alike have slashed staff and drastically cut their local government coverage. Even the news desk at Hayes’ old Texas paper has been reduced to just three reporters covering a geographic area the size of Illinois.
“You can’t cover city hall and school boards and everything that goes on in local government with that kind of dramatic reduction in resources,” Hayes said.
In his new book News Hole The Demise of Local Journalism and Political Engagement (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Hayes and co-author Jennifer L. Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, tie the demise of local journalism to another troubling trend: Americans’ increasing disconnection with local politics.
As newspapers have withered, Hayes contends that civic engagement has waned. In News Hole, the authors draw on a detailed analysis of 15 years of reporting in over 200 local newspapers—as well as decades of election returns, surveys and interviews with dozens of journalists—to link vanishing local journalism and declining civic engagement. And they explain why the parallel downward trends threaten democratic institutions. As hometown reporting has diminished, Americans have become less knowledgeable about their local governments and less interested in community issues—with declining turnout in elections and fewer people even able to name their elected officials.
“If you don’t have a newspaper covering what your elected officials are doing, it’s unlikely you know whether you should vote to reelect them or not,” Hayes said.
A Tale of Two Cities
Hayes outlines a new political dynamic where attention to national politic dominates the public discourse—but, without the detailed reporting of hometown newspapers, local interests fall to the wayside. Voter turnout in presidential elections, for example, is soaring, with the 2020 presidential election boasting the highest turnout in the 21st century. At the same time mayoral election turnouts have reached near record lows, even in major cities like New York. Dallas’ paltry 6 percent turnout in the 2015 mayor’s race was “roughly the equivalent of a show of hands,” Hayes said. Meanwhile, only 40 percent of Americans can name their city’s mayor—down from 70 percent in the 1960s.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” Hayes said. “We are in an era of American politics where people are highly engaged—but it’s almost exclusively on the national level.”
As a result, Hayes notes, local politics is often dominated by the most politically motivated—who tend to be highly educated, wealthy and white—and leaves the poor and people of color with less effective representation.
Ironically, the disengagement has come at a time when local government is more central to Americans’ lives than ever. States and localities have been on the frontlines of battles over issues like health care reform, climate change and, most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. But with fewer reporters acting as watchdogs, local elected officials are freer to operate without accountability—risking less efficient and effective local governments and city halls that are ripe for corruption.
Still, Hayes maintains it’s not too late to reinvigorate local news industries—and at the same time preserve democratic traditions. In addition to strategies such as promoting newspaper ownership and even advocating for public subsidies, Hayes holds out hope that readers still have an appetite for local news.
While researching the book, Hayes and a team that included GW undergraduate students, conducted exit polls during the 2018 elections. In a small sample, they found that reminding voters of the importance of local institutions not only promotes civic engagement. It also seems to spark a greater hunger to consume local news. “If you get more people interested in news about their communities, you give newspapers an incentive to cover public affairs at the local level,” he said, “which is what we need for democracy to really work.”