The League of Women Voters of Washington state has come out with a 133-page report on “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy.”
It says that between 2005-2020 one-fourth of the nation’s newspapers — or 2,100 — closed, leaving 1,800 communities without a local news source.
So in 2021, the LWV decided to do a study in Washington state. It found that the state’s residents were experiencing lower political participation, less government oversight, higher government costs, increased partisanship, reduced community engagement and lack of communication about public health.
The committee also examined potential measures to protect local news — such as legislation, nonprofit ownership, community partnerships and philanthropy.
This state has lost more than two dozen weeklies and three dailies out of 140 that existed in 2004, about 20% in total. Staffing has declined up to 67%.
“The decline has meant Washington, too, is experiencing an explosion of mis- and disinformation,” the report says. “Observers lament the loss of the souls of communities and the glue that holds communities together.”
Benjamin Shors, an associate professor at Washington State University, says in the report that, “This is not a journalism problem. It’s a democracy problem.”
Things got worse during COVID. Sound Publishing, which owns the Kitsap News Group newspapers and many others in the state, shut down 20 free weeklies, although seven are now publishing again.
It was also noted that the number of pages in newspapers has dropped significantly, due to newsprint costs, smaller staffs and lack of advertising, while prices have gone up. The Everett Herald, the flagship paper for Sound, no longer has Sunday or Monday papers. The Saturday paper is bigger, and the Monday one only online.
The report goes on to say that since 2008 more people have been getting their news via the internet than from newspapers. But most of that news is national so people are missing out on what’s going on locally. And false news is rampant on the internet, the report says.
At the state level, many newspapers used to cover the legislature. Now few do, and the capitol city’s newspaper, The Olympian, is a shell of what it once was, now basically a bureau for the Tacoma News Tribune. Twenty years ago, 16 full- and part-time reporters covered the state capitol. Today, five full-time reporters do. Since 2004, the TNT has dropped from almost 128,000 in circulation to 54,000, while the Daily O has dropped from almost 34,000 to 17,400.
Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers says in the report that he has witnessed great political polarization in the state.
Josh O’Connor, publisher of Sound, agreed that divisions are becoming increasingly evident. “By taking the middle road on issues and upholding democratic values, we’re finding that we’re not connecting with either side because of how polarized our country has become.”
Social media makes a poor substitute for the local newspaper, O’Connor said. “Many are going to Facebook for their news, and they can’t distinguish the difference between a trusted journalistic voice versus something that’s been shared 100 times through a post developed by a neighbor.”
Shors adds national coverage is conflict-driven, while local coverage is community driven. Because of the lack of local news coverage, “There’s not this sort of shared community.”
Lee Shaker, a Portland State University professor, adds, “Newspapers are vital institutions in our democracy, and their decline warrants our attention.”
A 2016 Pew Research Center study reported people who were more engaged in their communities were more interested in local news. Researchers looked at attachment to one’s community, voting, activity in local and political groups, rating of the local community, and political diversity.
When newspapers close, it costs more to run local government, according to a 2019 Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy study of the impact of newspaper closures on public finance. Government costs include more employees and higher wages, increased county deficits and higher tax revenues per capita.
Higher government costs lead to higher borrowing costs for cities and counties, the study says. A typical municipal bond to pay for construction of a hospital or school can cost as much as 11 points more in the wake of a newspaper closure. That means taxpayers will pay an additional $650,000 in interest payments over the life of a bond, based on an average bond size and duration of $65 million over 10 years.
Dermot Murphy, one of the three authors of the Hutchins Center report, told the LWV news study committee, “When we were starting this paper, our idea was that if there’s no longer a watchdog in the community, it’s possible that government might be more prone to raising taxes or increasing deficits, or simply just hiring more employees than necessary.”
The study concludes that “local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.”
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson believes corruption — whether public or private — thrives in darkness. “A healthy investigative press makes it more likely that the public hears about this corruption,” Ferguson wrote in an email to the LWV committee.
Ferguson said the decline in local news coverage has made his work more difficult. “My office receives more than 24,000 consumer complaints per year. These complaints often lead to positive resolutions for consumers, who receive an average of $4 (million to) $6 million per year from our informal complaint resolution process,” he said.
He relies on traditional media to publicize the office’s services, but he worries that residents who no longer pick up a local newspaper won’t know where to complain about deceptive business practices.
In October 2021, Ferguson led a bipartisan coalition of 15 state attorneys general asking Congress to pass the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. “We must do all we can to save local journalism,” he said.
Federal and state lawmakers are looking to help. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, is an original sponsor of the act. The majority of local newspaper owners and publishers surveyed by the LWV news study committee expressed support for the act. The act would provide tax credits to readers who subscribe to local newspapers, along with tax credits for advertisers and employers with employees who work in news.
And with the economics of traditional newspapers so unstable, many news organizations are putting more effort into digital products. O’Connor said: “Growing both digital advertising revenue and digital subscription” are key. “Sound will finally crest about a million in digital subscription revenue, which I think is a really important watermark for us. We can continue to invest in more journalism jobs within these markets that we serve.”
In its closing comments, the LWV says: “When our founders established our country, they recognized that a free press is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Testament to that is the protection they provided the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The founders established it was appropriate to encourage journalism’s survival in the marketplace and created mechanisms for its viability such as reduced postal rates.
“As revealed by the individuals the committee interviewed and reports the committee studied, the decline of local news threatens our democracy in very real ways. That reality should prompt action by the League of Women Voters, the leading nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering voters and defending democracy.”
The LWV continues to say: “A number of states are making headway, although Washington’s failure to extend a business and operations tax preference for newspapers is troubling. It’s also true that some publishers continue to demonstrate their primary goal is to make money, not to contribute to an informed community. Those newspaper owners don’t know, or don’t care, how valuable real journalism is to a community and to democracy.
“But many editors and reporters do recognize the significance of the service they provide, and they are working diligently despite obstacles. Some news organizations are finding success as nonprofits, which also deserve recognition. Recognition, too, should go to tech giants like Microsoft, Facebook and Google, which have directed millions of dollars to local news operations. But the profits of those companies shouldn’t be at the expense of local newspapers.
“The main takeaway from this study is that newspapers are a public good. They are not just another business or industry. And the problem they are experiencing is not just a journalism problem. It’s a democracy problem.”
•State Senate Bill 5541: Would exempt newspapers from paying Business and Occupation Tax. In committee.
•Federal House Resolution 821: Congress should work to ensure local digital and print news continues for years to come. In committee.
•Federal House Bill 6068: Publication of news articles is tax-exempt. In committee.
•Federal SB 673 and HB 1735: Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. In committee.
•Federal HB 3940 and SB 2434: Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Gives tax credits to subscribers, news employers and advertisers. In committee.
•Federal HB 3169 and SB 1601: Future of Local News Act. In committee.