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How Shrinking Newsrooms Impact Local Politics


When local newspapers shrink, local communities pay the price. Research has shown that smaller newsrooms result in the scrutiny of government, lower voter turnout - and now, according to a new study, potentially fewer people who run for mayor. What are the implications of that? Meghan Rubado, a professor at Cleveland State University and a former journalist, co-authored the new study in Urban Affairs Review. She joins us from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

MEGHAN RUBADO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I gather you saw this firsthand in Syracuse when you were a city hall reporter.

RUBADO: That's right. So I was a reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard from about 2004 to 2010, and that was really during the worst, the most precipitous decline in newsroom staffing levels. So I witnessed a lot of that decline.

SIMON: And how did that translate to fewer people running for mayor, though?

RUBADO: Our theory is that when people know less about what their public officials are up to, quality challengers are less likely to emerge. So people have to know that a mayor or a councilor or a school board member is not doing a good job in order to sort of get up the nerve or the interest to challenge them in the next election.

SIMON: This study looked at, I gather, 11 newspapers in California, right?

RUBADO: That's right.

SIMON: And what did you find?

RUBADO: So we connected these newspapers to all the municipalities that they serve and examined their mayoral elections over a period of 20 years. And so what we see is that as that decline happened, newspapers that more dramatically cut their staff suffered sort of objectively negative political outcomes - fewer candidates running for mayor, largery (ph) victory margins for the winners and more incumbent-only races. Additionally, we saw some suggestive evidence that voter turnout declined under these conditions of more loss of news staff.

SIMON: And how do you react to the argument, well, more candidates don't necessarily mean better candidates?

RUBADO: Well, of course they don't always mean better candidates. But I think when voters don't have a choice - right? - and that's sort of what we're seeing. We're seeing that this decline tends to result in the difference between having an option and not having an option. I think it challenges the incumbent mayor, even if the candidate who's running against them is unlikely to win. If they feel any kind of threat to their job, they're more likely to feel that electoral connection to the voters and serve them better, represent them better.

SIMON: We do note there was a mayoral election there in Cleveland in 2017. The town has just one newspaper, which is cutting staff.

RUBADO: Yes, indeed.

SIMON: Mayor Frank Jackson was re-elected to a fourth term, but there were 11 candidates on the ballot. So how does that conform with your findings?

RUBADO: Right. So we looked at not just central cities, but the cities that surround the central city, as well. So while we might see these large numbers of candidates continuing to run in the central cities, still, we would expect that number to be higher and to be higher with quality challengers if the newspaper is doing a really good job of covering local politics. In the outlying cities in the first-ring suburbs and the outer suburbs, we expect this is more likely to be the difference between having a challenger and not having a challenger - having two people running versus one or maybe three versus one or two.

SIMON: And this has to do with the quality of democracy, doesn't it?

RUBADO: It definitely does. So the things that we observe - this reduced political competition, reduced voter engagement - when these conditions exist, it means that our elected officials are less tied to the voters. They're held less accountable. And if that's the case, there's lots of concern about what happens under those conditions - more corruption, less representation of voters, less effective governance.

SIMON: Meghan Rubado, professor at Cleveland State University. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUBADO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.