February 18, 2014

Political Communication | Lee Shaker

Civic engagement in Denver and Seattle “dropped significantly from 2008 to 2009,” Portland State University professor Lee Shaker says in a paper published at the end of January called “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement” (the published version is paywalled, but Shaker posted a draft of the report last year; all quotes below are from that.) While Shaker allows that other factors may have influenced the drop, measured by the Current Population Survey, it “may plausibly be attributed to the newspaper closures” in those cities.

Denver’s Rocky Mountain News closed in February 2009, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last print edition the next month. (The P-I remained in business as a Web-only news outlet with a much smaller staff.)

Shaker’s study controls for other reasons for the drop, including that 2008 was a presidential election year, but found in eight comparable cities that didn’t lose a print paper, “indicators were not significantly different” in 2009 than the year before.

So what’s the connection between newspapers and engagement? Drawing on previous research, Shaker says, “Readership of the same metropolitan newspaper – or other interactions with it – may spur many forms of engagement across districts and boundaries as groups of citizens respond to the same local (or regional) news in different manners. In short, civic engagement and other indicators of an active citizenry should be higher when local news media institutions are numerous and vibrant and members of the public are consuming the content that they produce.”

Those institutions don’t have to be print-based, Shaker writes: “In Seattle, at least some of the news produced for a print edition of the PI is now created for the web. Even if the audience is for the online edition is smaller, the positive externalities of the news it creates may still exist. In Denver, the amount of local news was simply reduced.”

But Shaker writes that “very few cities can support two local newspapers, no matter what their civic value may be.” His study “suggests that the value of newspapers, even in their current reduced economic and physical state, can be observed – though perhaps only after their demise.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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