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Almost every day of my two decades as a political reporter, I get a call, an email, or a text from a clever staffer asking when the last time the opposition had to answer for Topic X. Someone really ought to ask him about that, they’ll tell me. Have you seen his comments from 10 years ago? It’s a classic tactic that’s getting retooled for our modern media landscape. Working the refs, as it is, has never been so transparent. Talk to almost any operative working beyond the Beltway, and they’ll tell you they have almost no one in the communities they are focused on who can take one of those suggested questions and run with it. That’s why more of those “tips” have been coming in recent years to people like me.
The fact that the national campaign committees are pitching opposition research on local candidates to reporters in Washington says more about the health of local journalism than their hopes of turning a rival into a late-night punching bag.
This goes far beyond anecdotes, and as someone who is a Midwest transplant to D.C., I’m particularly sensitive to how the persistent and pernicious decline of local journalism is disrupting that region.
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In a new paper published in the spring edition of The Middle West Review, historian Jon K. Lauck looks at the state of journalism in the Midwest states, and the topline observations are not reason for optimism for those who think a free and fair press is a vital component to the Jeffersonian notion of a well-informed electorate being a requisite component of a healthy democracy. In fact, the unspoken indictment is that the press—and its owners—are failing bigly in its part to help voters make the best choices possible.
Take the well-regarded Omaha World-Herald, a towering newspaper that once counted local billionaire Warren Buffett as its owner. Lauck notes that the paper had more than 200 journalists in 2015 and started this year with about 40. The losses, of course, correspond to the decimation of readership: in 1980, the Sunday edition counted 302,000 copies rolling off its presses; these days, it’s about 40,000. And, not for nothing, the Omaha coverage area historically has included a whole lot of western Iowa, a stretch where conservative candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination have shaken-up that state’s lead-off caucuses.
The pattern continues throughout the region. For the Des Moines Register, arguably the most important voice in Iowa’s political landscape, the Sunday run went from 535,000 copies in the 1970s down to 53,000 during 2020. The Cleveland Plain Dealer printed almost 500,000 copies on weekdays in the 1980s but ended 2019 with a daily circulation of about 95,000. All of these newsrooms are struggling with the fact that digital readers are not as profitable to them, and often not as engaged as the ones who used to subscribe to the print product. Down Interstate 71, The Columbus Dispatch has seen its coverage in the state’s biggest city shrink from about 250 journalists in its late-1990s newsroom to about 40 these days. And then there’s Youngstown, Ohio, where I started my journalism career. It’s now the largest city in America without its own stand-alone newspaper.
The media landscape has changed over the last 20 years in vast ways, with online publishing and advertising threatening our business offices and assumptions in ways great and small. It’s no secret that we as an industry have struggled to keep up. But beyond hollowed-out newsrooms or shuttered papers, the broader threat is one to democracy itself, one that will be more noticeable in 2024 than any previous election cycle. Without independent journalists to cover, analyze, and query candidates and their campaigns, voters are left to rely on the spin and propaganda that the political machines themselves churn out. Some of it is quite good, but none of it is self-critical. After all, Rep. George Santos arrived in Congress with very little friction blocking his acquisition of a voting card as a fabulist from New York. Without someone standing ready with a notebook, tape recorder (or iPhone app, as the case is nowadays), and just plain clear eyes on a candidate, voters aren’t really getting the full picture.
All this has me thinking back to my trip in late October to Ohio, where an open Senate race between Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance was drawing strong national interest. I had followed Ryan for some Thursday night tailgating at Bowling Green State, his alma mater.
The late-October air was crisp, the beer outside the football stadium even chillier, the cornhole set up for undergrads and alumni alike. Ryan, coming off a busy day of campaigning, spent the evening tossing the football with his son and College Democrats, and making small talk with students who wandered by. In the distance, echoes of the marching band bounced off the benches in the stadium.
A few years ago, such a pitch-perfect photo-op would have drawn a bevy of local political journalists trying to get a bead on a candidate’s messaging and campaign style. But that night, there was only a single local online journalist, a New York-based wire photographer, and the D.C.-based me.
This, of course, is not why Ryan lost his Senate race. No, there’s been just one Democrat who has won statewide office in Ohio in the last decade, and that’s incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown. Ohio’s place as a swing state seems to be a thing of the past, although not everyone subscribes to that theory. No pictures of Ryan tossing a football with his son, Brady, would have narrowed his six-point loss. (Though, for what it’s worth, Joe Biden lost Ohio by eight points two years earlier.)
But when a major candidate in such a high-profile race is interacting with voters days before Election Day, the lack of curiosity from the local press corps, stemming in large part from its lack of bodies, speaks volumes about the larger difficulties of Ohioans getting a proper sense of their state’s shifting political landscape.
At the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has been championing a bill to help local newsrooms compete for ad dollars against tech giants. As Klobuchar, a daughter of a newspaperman, knows, no one is better at interpreting local events than the people who live in those communities. The death of expertise is simultaneously bad for the newsrooms, but also voters.
The political press doesn’t always get it right—my Twitter replies are proof enough of that view—but it fills an important role in helping voters understand the issues and stakes of a campaign. Without that coverage, voters are left to listen to whichever candidates’ ads can dominate the airwaves and digital screens, most of it guided by the whims of deep-pocketed donors. That, put plainly, isn’t what democracy should look like, especially not in a part of the country where hyper-local candidates can often defy national trends, if only someone credible is there to explain why.
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