By By Greg Markley
People ask me why it seems national and state politicians are arrested more than local officials such as mayors and county commissioners. I can’t confirm that, but as a person who follows politics, I believe it is likely true. When teaching political science at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2016, I fielded that question. Here’s my tongue-in-cheek answer: “Publix.”
That’s right, the upscale supermarket chain! I use Publix as an example, as a prominent company who people can relate to. Local politicians live in our neighborhoods; they know they are being watched by voters. If an elected official shows up in a new Lamborghini, it might be legitimate (he inherited a bunch of money) or nefarious (lobbyists rewarding him for pushing certain bills.)
Public officials representing us in Montgomery or Washington, D.C. are less often under our microscope. D.C. especially has special-interest money available that could fill the Potomac River. Although local politicians are in the local spotlight more, news about them—good and bad—in local newspapers, radio and TV, has declined for years. In a recent Politico column, “Why has local news collapsed?” senior media writer Jack Shafer identified a demand-side problem.
“When local reporting goes south, researchers tell us, political polarization, civic corruption, lower voter turnout, reduced civic engagement, even authoritarianism follow.” Shafer says local news is collapsing. Often, greedy publishers and online advertising titans like Facebook and Google are blamed, and for good reason. Yet, according to Shafer the best explanation is that readers themselves have not responded to local news or asked for more of it.
When news by professionals in print and communications media is not available, Facebook articles on local issues such as still another quarry or an allegedly poisoned river, whatever, are passed along the internet as if they are true. Local “news” can quickly become full of rumors and conspiracy theories. Authors of posts are usually well-meaning, but most are not skilled in locating the truth or using critical thinking well.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I commonly heard workers pick up a newspaper and five minutes later say, “Well, I just finished the newspaper!” Back then papers had several sections yet these “readers” got done very fast. They must have just read headlines and looked at the sports photos! Just yesterday morning, I talked to a man who said “I never read the paper.”
He meant not the traditional paper, nor even the online version. One wonders how much he knows from word-of-mouth or web pages about the city and state he lives in. Expectations have been dire for print papers’ durability since the late 1980s. Jack Shafer may be more pessimistic than everyone else.
“Even if you underwrote local news with taxes and philanthropy, and distributed it to citizens by subsidies, you’d still have to find a way to get people to read it,” he said. “Until some editorial genius cracks that puzzle, the local news quest will remain a charitable, niche project advanced by journalistic, academic and political elites.”
In “Local news coverage is declining and that could be bad for American politics,” Joshua Darr of FiveThirtyEight said people may not realize the wide impact of losing local political news. (538 is the number of Electoral Votes presidential candidates vie for.) “If local newspapers go away or are weakened beyond recognition, a real possibility given their steep decline and Americans’ lack of awareness of it, we won’t just feel nostalgic—we’ll feel actual consequences.”
Absent from many small and midsize newspapers are “enterprise” stories. Those in-depth news stories cover topics beyond city council meetings and mayor’s press conferences. They take plenty of time and are often controversial. They can be positive such as identifying the need for another recreation center.
“Local political news offers Americans what political scientist Lilliana Mason calls a “cross-cutting identity; it connects partisans on a different dimension instead of further dividing them along party lines,” writes Darr. “When people read news about their neighborhoods, schools and municipal services, they think like locals. When they read about national political conflict, they think like partisans.”
In March 2013 while in Kansas doing research, I took a windshield tour of Emporia. It is there that Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Allen White published the daily Emporia Gazette from 1895-1844. He was a confidant of U.S. presidents and a symbol of Middle America.
Now is a different story. Competition from the Web and contentious cable shows centered on national issues are turning consumers away from newspapers with local political coverage. William Allen White’s motto was: “The facts fairly and honestly presented; truth will take care of itself.” That’s fine, but the hemorrhaging of readership is leading to fewer and fewer local political news. To find out what your politicians are doing, you must go to Publix.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 10 years. firstname.lastname@example.org