Since 2004, nearly 2,000 local newspapers in the U.S. have shut down, eliminating an important source of local information and news for many Americans. Six percent of counties now have no newspaper at all. Blame for this decline falls most heavily on the internet, which sucked away advertising revenue and offered plenty of content for free, but it’s worth noting that the trend started before the internet was even a distant dream.
“We’ve long seen alarmist headlines about the death of local journalism,” says Michael Sinkinson, an assistant professor of economics at Yale SOM. “These kinds of closures have been happening for decades.”
A new study co-authored by Sinkinson looks back at a period when another a new technology was threatening the dominance of newspapers: television. With Charles Angelucci of MIT and Julia Cagé of Sciences Po Paris, Sinkinson examined the effect of television’s spread in the 1940s and ’50s on the health of local newspapers, and the consequences for an informed citizenry. The team found that local papers began to wither as television drew away readers and advertisers—and that without a reliable source of local news, citizens appeared to be less engaged with local politics.
The researchers used a historical quirk in television broadcast licensing to study the interaction of the two forms of media. In September of 1948, the Federal Communications Commission halted the licensing of new television stations in order to resolve a set of technical and engineering challenges. The “FCC freeze,” as it came to be known, lasted for four years, “and gave us this very clean natural experiment where some markets were randomly introduced to TV four years earlier than others,” Sinkinson says. (The FCC had approved 108 licenses by 1948; 700 were put on hold until after the freeze.) “We were then able to see how newspapers responded to this new type of media.”
Sinkinson and his colleagues overlaid the geographical reach of operating TV stations on top of local newspaper markets and manually collected a rich set of information on each newspaper: What were circulation numbers? How many pages was the paper? What kind of content did it include? How much did advertising cost? How many ads were sold on an annual basis?
It was not obvious, Sinkinson said, what the researchers would find. It was easy to imagine that national TV would eat into the revenue and circulation of local newspapers; but they thought it was also possible that TV would complement local news, creating greater appetite for in-depth local stories.
The results showed that readers began to put down their newspapers to watch TV—and advertisers followed.
“The first big takeaway is that we find a large substitution away from papers, particularly evening papers, and toward TV,” Sinkinson says. National advertisers, specifically, diverted much of their budget for the local marketplace to television.
Sinkinson notes that this moment did not mark the beginning of a collapse of local newspapers. In fact, the newspaper business continued to grow during the introduction of TV, despite the competition, but it grew more slowly than previously—and more slowly than TV audiences were growing. This decline in growth meant a 5-10% loss of revenue for newspapers and, as Sinkinson puts it, “no business is excited to hear about a 5-10% drop in revenue.” One response was slimmer papers, with less coverage of everything from national news to sports to local news.
The next step for Sinkinson and his colleagues was to tie these findings to the degree of political engagement in an area. To explore this connection, they looked at split-ticket voting, in which people vote for, say, a Democrat at the national level but a Republican at a state or local level. This voting practice suggests, among other things, voters who are paying attention to specific candidates rather than just party labels. In markets where TV was present, they found a lower percentage of split-ticket voters.
“The idea here is that these voting patterns can indicate whether people are doing their research in terms of local elections,” Sinkinson says “It seem like this is less the case in markets with TV, and this raises the issue about what, potentially, is not being covered at the local level.”
“High-quality journalism is very expensive, and newspapers are competing with other forms of media that are low cost to operate and free to distribute.”
The contemporary relevance of these findings is, of course, unavoidable. And that was part of the point. “This was a historical paper, but we were trying to relate it to the more recent entry of specialized media, like cable news networks and Craigslist,” Sinkinson says. “These are all just technical innovations that enter the market and compete with newspapers.”
What became of the newspapers that were losing readers and advertisers to television seven decades ago? Of the 102 local papers that the authors scrutinized the content of, just 10 were available to examine in 2017 (the researchers looked for newspapers that produced a print format with full issues available online). Those still in publication published fewer stories and fewer of those were original local content.
The loss of local papers troubles Sinkinson—among other things, they serve to keep people informed about corruption and misdeeds among their elected officials, and often break stories with wider reverberations; a small paper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, revealed the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, for instance. And as local news fades, local politics becomes increasingly nationalized—which, other researchers have found, contributes to political polarization.
“High-quality journalism is very expensive, and newspapers are competing with other forms of media that are low cost to operate and free to distribute,” he says. “I wish that people valued the local press more than they do.”