A Saturday POLITICO report found then-candidate Donald Trump performed significantly better in “news deserts” — counties in the U.S. with the lowest number of newspaper subscribers and active publications — than in counties with more newspaper subscriptions and active publications. The data revealed that Trump performed better than 2008 Republican candidate Mitt Romney and edged out 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in those specific areas. POLITICO drew its conclusions through a comparison of election results and subscription information from an industry media company, noting “a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success.”
This analysis, if true, suggests that a decline in local news and the overall distrust in the industry can have a significant impact on national and even state elections. For someone like Trump — who often tends to exaggerate and stray from facts — it’s possible that the lack of local media coverage allowed him to appeal to voters directly rather than through third-party mediums that dilute his message and, obviously, fact-check his claims.
Admittedly, Trump is not the only politician who makes exaggerated claims and spins his platform to appeal to the American people. Many politicians, both Democratic and Republican, prolifically make statements that are factually untrue.
Therefore, it’s even more concerning that the quality and quantity of the local press has begun to dissolve, especially when misinformation and the threat of “fake news” run rampant on the internet. More than ever, the role of the local press in cultivating trust within smaller communities is needed, especially when national outlets are being verbally condemned and devalued by politicians. But instead, even in large cities like Los Angeles, newspapers are facing a decline while local TV stations across the U.S. (which are mostly owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group) are being utilized as mouthpieces, pushing “must-run” packages directly produced by the company, infringing on these stations’ independence.
In recent years, major newsrooms have experienced cutbacks on resources and reporters, as they invest in the growth of digital platforms and audience engagement methods. According to a 2014 report by the Washington Post, local news has, unfortunately, been hit the hardest. It’s obvious the business model of the news industry is changing; and now, the question many organizations are grappling with is: How do they catch up?
This is tricky, considering the overall lack of funding in newsrooms and the minimal resources allocated for journalists. On Twitter, following a streak of layoffs from the Denver Post, journalists retaliated against media company Tronc, the paper’s owners, and its executive leadership. Newspapers were once owned independently — not conglomerated into a media group spearheaded by business executives with their own monetary agendas.
At its core, journalism is a public service, and as an industry, it must reflect that. The problems and consequent decline faced by local press are multifaceted. First, the conglomeration of local media and disconnect between the newsroom and its owners make it unsurprising that local journalists are underpaid for their work and treated as replaceable by many media groups. Poor treatment and lack of resources have severely impacted not only the quality of reporting, but also the ability of the newsroom to digitize, and consequently monetize, its content to reach expanded audiences.
The increasing decline of the local press will ultimately play a role in future elections and in fostering political dialogue in smaller communities, as a whole. Major corporations like Google and Facebook are currently sponsoring journalism projects to support smaller newsrooms. But will that be enough? The responsibility to keep local news afloat lies not just in the hands of large media executives — any individual can make the decision to purchase a subscription from a local newspaper.
Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs Tuesdays.