April Kelly-Woessner

April Kelly-Woessner

For several weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary elections, my mailbox was filled with political advertisements for candidates running for local office. 

What struck me most this year was the extent to which candidates for county, municipal and even school board offices attempted to win votes by aligning themselves with national party platforms and President Donald Trump.

In one notable example, a candidate for county commissioner took a strong position on U.S. immigration policy, even though it was beyond the scope of the local government operations one might hope to influence as a county commissioner.

In another example, a slate of candidates campaigned together, representing themselves as the strong Republican ticket for school board. The advertisements lacked a substantive platform for public education. In fact, I happen to believe that the best candidate for school board would be a thoughtful, independent thinker who hasn’t pledged his or her undying loyalty to a national political party.

Why are candidates for local office running on national platforms, citing issues on which they will have little influence, or tying themselves to national political leaders who clearly don’t even know who they are?

The answer may lie in a new study, published in Scientific America, which finds that the closing of regional newspapers has led to a decline in our understanding of local politics and an increase in partisanship. Political news at the national level tends to focus on party polarization, which drives voters to use party as a proxy for better information about a candidate’s record, experience and agenda. When all news is national news, even our local politicians no longer talk about local issues.

Fortunately, LNP  — which is marking its 225th anniversary this month —  continues to provide coverage of local elections and politics.

According to the study, in areas that saw the closure of a local newspaper, split-ticket voting declined. Without local newspapers such as LNP, voters lack information about candidates for office and the performance of incumbents in state, county and municipal offices.

This lack of information, combined with the intense political polarization highlighted in national news coverage, causes people to fall back on party loyalty and vote straight-ticket. Party becomes more important than individual candidate traits. In the event of a primary, in which one must choose among members of the same party, candidates seek to show that they are a stronger party loyalist than their opponents.

The phenomenon of local media decline continues to grow. According to a study last year by Penelope Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina, more than 1,800 local newspapers have closed since 2004, leaving many rural communities as “news deserts.” More than 200 counties in the United States now have no local paper. In other cases, frequency of publication has declined and/or circulation has plummeted.

The decline of local newspapers is compounded by the fact that many of those remaining are being consolidated under several large corporations, which maintain efficiency by sharing content across newspapers. This, too, means less local coverage of community issues, even in supposedly local papers.

News deserts also contribute to political corruption. Journalists often report on wasteful spending, mismanagement and abuse of power. When local papers disappear, so do these government watchdogs. There is evidence this lack of scrutiny has real financial impacts. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois found that when local media outlets disappear, municipalities see a decline in fiscal responsibility, marked by an increase in borrowing and higher rates on municipal bonds. That study’s authors conclude that, without local media watchdogs, municipal projects lack scrutiny and are more likely to be mismanaged.

National news and local news publications differ in content and tone. In an analysis of local versus national newspapers, the Pew Research Center found that local papers provide significantly more “straight forward reporting that focuses on the facts of a news event while the reporting in the nationals is more interpretative.” Additionally, local papers were more likely to provide educational background information about how a process works.

The decline of local newspapers has broad social and political consequences, leaving local political dealings to operate with less scrutiny and leaving voters disconnected from the issues facing their communities. When candidates for county commissioner and local school board elections are running on the basis of national political party platforms, we have lost both the understanding of what people in these offices do and the means to hold them accountable for failing to act in the community’s interest.

The finding that local newspaper closures increases municipal spending suggests that communities could benefit from saving their local papers, even if doing so requires subsidies. Journalism is a public good.

April Kelly-Woessner is a professor and chairwoman of the political science department at Elizabethtown College. She also is a correspondent for LNP. Email: woessnerak@etown.edu.