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International Column
“Newspapers affect the political process”
Prof. Jesse M. Shapiro, Faculty of Economics at the Booth School of Business focuses his research on the economics of communication and persuasion in the areas of industrial organisation and political economy. In a recent study, he explores the impact of newspapers on electoral outcomes and how their entry and exit changes political dynamics
Issue Date - 30/04/2012
Hit by a depressed economy, weighed down by debt, and hurt by advertisers and readers moving to digital media, US newspapers have fallen on hard times in recent years. For instance, in 2008, media giant Tribune, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, declared bankruptcy. In the same year, the McClatchy Company, which owns 30 daily newspapers across the country, cut 10% of its workforce; another 15% lost their jobs the following year. While many newspapers have folded, others shrink as they continue to lay off workers, including reporters covering essential beats.

Local news, in particular, has suffered, according to a June 2011 Federal Communications Commission report on the changing media landscape. The report says that many communities now face “a shortage of local, professional, and accountability reporting,” which is “likely to lead to more government waste, more local corruption, worse schools, a less-informed electorate, and other serious problems in communities.” The number of statehouse reporters, for instance, dropped by one-third from 2003 to 2008, while state government spending rose substantially. Fewer reporters mean that newspapers have less time to spend on in-depth stories.

Of grave concern is the effect of newspaper closings on electoral politics. People may be less inclined to vote if their local newspaper, which keeps them current on political issues and events, suddenly folds. Without newspapers, it may be easier for public officials to get away with corruption and challengers lose an important platform that would help them run against incumbents. Further closures due to the Internet may also result in an increased polarisation of views, if people instead flock to websites that confirm their prejudices.

To understand how newspapers can affect electoral outcomes, I along with University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Matthew Gentzkow and Michael Sinkinson of Harvard University analysed a massive dataset of every daily newspaper published in the United States from 1869 to 2004. Our goal was to find out if the entry and exit of newspapers in this period had a significant influence on voter turnout, party vote shares, and the advantage of incumbent politicians. This is useful evidence from the past that we can use to think about some of the issues still important today.

The results of the study, which are discussed in a new paper titled The Effect of Newspaper Entry and Exit on Electoral Politics, are consistent with the idea that newspapers affect the political process by providing valuable information. The entry of a newspaper significantly increased voter turnout, and the impact on congressional elections remained strong even after the introduction of radio and television.

Finding the impact of a newspaper
We collected data on US newspapers never before digitised on such a large scale. For every year, we matched each newspaper to the county where it was published. Many markets had two or more competing newspapers during the sample period, but the number of counties with more than one paper steadily declined throughout the 20th century, and most counties in recent years had only one paper.

Our study analysed the impact of the entry and exit of newspapers by comparing the electoral results in counties that experienced a change in newspapers with those counties in the same state and year that did not. This strategy exploited the fact that exits and entries of newspapers caused large changes in newspaper readership. Changes in readership before or after such events were small, relative to the effect of the event itself. To be sure that any effect on electoral outcomes is indeed due to newspaper entries or exits, we controlled for other factors that may confound the results. For instance, the number of newspapers in a market is primarily determined by population and income growth, both of which also help predict the number of people who will vote.

voter turnout
If people are more likely to vote when they are better informed, then newspapers can play an important role in increasing turnout at elections. Newspapers usually devote many pages to discuss the issues at stake and the candidates’ characteristics and platforms. Newspapers also can encourage people to care more about the outcome of an election, or they may simply remind people of the fact that an election is taking place.

The effect of newspapers on voter turnout may vary with the extent of competition and the availability of alternative news sources. More newspapers can lead to lower prices and better reporting, which could expand the market and newspapers’ impact on elections. On the other hand, the first newspaper to enter a market can have a much bigger impact than later entrants, whose readers may already be subscribers of the first newspaper. The effect on voter turnout, particularly for presidential elections, also may be much stronger before the introduction of radio and television.

The study finds that after controlling for population growth, an additional newspaper increased voter turnout at presidential and congressional elections by about 0.3 percentage points. The effect of the first newspaper on turnout was one percentage point, while the effect of the second and third newspapers was much weaker. Thus, newspaper competition is not a key driver of voter turnout. How big is this effect? If the only newspaper in a county closes, the impact of its absence on voter turnout is about eight times larger than rain on an election day. Newspapers seem to be more persuasive in getting people to vote than direct mail solicitations, but somewhat less effective than talking directly to people by going door to door or calling them on the phone.

The introduction of a partisan newspaper may persuade people to shift their votes to its preferred candidates by slanting coverage or publishing biased information to sway voters. While it may seem straightforward that the introduction of a Republican newspaper would increase conservative vote shares, newspapers may choose a market that is already conservative for commercial rather than journalistic reasons.

Ultimately, if what newspapers do is expose who the better candidate is, then it is unclear whether newspapers can affect an incumbent’s chances of winning an election. Indeed, the study finds no evidence that newspapers systematically hurt or help incumbents.

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