Using the Local News: Campaigns, Newspapers, and Accountability
The steep decline of local newspapers in recent years represents a major shift in the media environment that may be detrimental to political accountability and knowledge. I argue that despite these seismic changes in the marketplace for news, local newspapers remain critical to American politics. Local newspapers inform and empower voters, but are subject to influence and distortion by campaigns. I establish the importance of local newspapers by testing for differences in political knowledge between readers of local and national newspapers. Using the National Annenberg Election Survey, I obtain accurate measures of newspaper readership, knowledge of national politics, and familiarity with local politics. I find that reading a national newspaper makes people better informed about national politics, but reading a local newspaper increases knowledge about local politics and equips citizens to hold incumbents accountable through their votes. Given the importance of newspapers to voters' decisions, I expect campaigns to seek earned coverage at every opportunity. Campaigns establish a regional presence and conduct newsworthy events, allowing them to cultivate relationships with reporters and earn coverage more easily. I use an original dataset of local newspaper coverage in three elections to demonstrate that local newspapers in areas where campaigns invest resources publish approximately 20% more stories on those elections, a finding that passes placebo tests and robustness checks. Finally, I examine whether campaigns can earn positive news coverage. I performed a content analysis on 304 articles from a matched pairs design of Florida newspapers in the 2004 and 2008 elections. I find that regional campaign presence generates positive earned media, but only in smaller newspapers. When campaign organization is present in an area with a resource-poor newspaper, the campaign receives approximately four times as many positive stories (and stories containing positive quotes) as when it ignores similar areas with a small newspaper. I conclude that local newspapers matter in elections, but recent changes in the media marketplace are reducing their effectiveness and opening them up to manipulation by strategic campaigns. Local newspapers must figure out ways to maintain their autonomy and usefulness in their uncertain future.