Texas A&M professor: Losing local newspapers means unhealthy local news ecosystems

Johanna Dunaway, Texas A&M University associate professor of communication, gives a presentation at Tyler Junior College on Monday to share results of research she and her associates conducted on the effects that losing local newspaper outlets is having on politics around the country and what effects that loss of local media has on communities. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

TYLER — A communications associate professor from Texas A&M University says residents of towns where local newspapers have closed are living in unhealthy local news ecosystems, leading to reckless government spending, less responsible politicians and even lower voter turnout.

Johanna Dunaway spoke Monday at Tyler Junior College to share results of research she and her associates conducted on the effects that losing local newspaper outlets is having on politics around the country and what effects that loss of local media has on communities.

About 75 students and faculty gathered in a Jenkins Hall classroom to hear about Dunaway’s research. M. Roberts Media, owner of the News-Journal and Tyler Morning Telegraph, co-sponsored her visit.

“Local newsrooms have built and developed rapport and trust with local sources,” Dunaway said. “This is the recipe for a deeper, more informed news product. Losing local newsrooms takes away capabilities, and expert-based coverage goes away.”

She said small, local newsrooms produce content seen online and on social media, and news aggregators pull that content from newsrooms around the country.

Dunaway called a town that is now without a newspaper an “unhealthy local news ecosystem.”

“It’s compounding information inequities,” she said. “Living in local news deserts makes it hard to find local news about communities, health, services, schools and crime.”

She said the loss of local newspapers reduces the media’s ability to be the local watchdog; local governments spend money more recklessly; politicians are not as responsible to constituents; and incumbents are re-elected at higher rates because there is no reporting on misdeeds and poor performance when it happens.

“It doesn’t even matter if the newspaper has a lot of readership; the effects seen were the same,” Dunaway said. “There is reduced electoral competition if there isn’t a local newspaper. More people stay in power longer because there isn’t a robust media telling people how they are doing.”

Dunaway also said the voter turnout is lower, and — in a particular review of 2012 elections — split-ticket voting declined by 2 percent in communities without local newspapers.

She said the loss of local newspapers takes away the microphone on what U.S. senators and representative are doing and changes the incentive structure because the public ends up seeing representatives serving their party, not how they serve their districts.

Chapel Hill High School journalism teacher Jessica Otte brought her newspaper and yearbook staff to the presentation.

Otte said she wanted her students to see the impact of news on a bigger scale.

“Before the event, I told them that they would probably hear about the biased media slant due to a lack of local newspapers,” Otte said. “I’m teaching them to report facts to avoid those biases.”

Dunaway also mentioned the budget constraints that local media outlets are facing that’s contributing to the closures of local papers.

“It is problematic,” said Nancy Carter, TJC professor of economics. “I don’t know what the solutions are, but (Dunaway’s) on to something. Local papers need a more local focus. The national media cannot provide that. Local papers cannot compete with national papers. They don’t have the resources.”

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