At Democracy Fund, we see every day how local news strengthens democracy. People rely on local news to figure out who to vote for, how to speak up at school board meetings, how to run for local office, where to find vaccines, when to organize for change, and more. From daily reporting that equips people to act, to huge investigations that reveal corruption, the health of local news is bound up with the health of our democracy.
Unfortunately, communities across the United States are steadily losing access to this kind of civic information. According to data released in June 2022, at least one fifth of the U.S. — 70 million people — live in a community without a newspaper or a community at risk of losing theirs.
Since 2018, we’ve been tracking academic studies that show in stark terms the impact journalism has on our democracy. This research review has become a critical guide for funders, policymakers, communities, and journalists who care about creating a healthier democracy. In 2022, we overhauled this resource, including adding a section that more clearly names the harms journalism has caused in our communities, especially communities of color.
These studies and articles provide an enormous set of rigorous data that help quantify what happens when local communities have strong local news — and what happens when they lose it. Understanding the impact of quality local news on our democracy in these sorts of specific, data driven, nuanced ways is critical as we think about how to build a more equitable and sustainable future of local news that truly serves all communities at a moment of threat and uncertainty in democracy.
Do you have additional research to add, or are interested in how you can be part of the solution? Email us at LocalNewsLab [@] democracyfund.org.
(Ed. Note: This post was originally published June 26, 2018. It was last revised on September 15, 2022. We will continue to update the date in this note for future additions. Andrea Lorenz, PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media, contributed research and guidance for the update of this post in summer 2022.)
Strong local journalism = more people turning out to vote.
- The amount of local political coverage correlates with increased voter turnout. Researchers in Denmark found that “local news media coverage has a positive effect on voter turnout, but only if the news media provide politically relevant information to the voters and only at local elections.”
- Voters have been more likely to vote in down-ballot races in places with more local newspapers per capita. By comparing data on legislative ballot completion with news circulation data, researchers from St. Olaf College found that even the existence of local newspapers contributes to the likelihood that voters will fill out more of their ballots.
- Local media coverage can increase voter engagement in state Supreme Court elections. David Hughes studied how these races can often be considered “low information elections” because of how little information voters can find about the candidates and stakes of the contest, but media attention can generate and distribute as much information about a race as a well-funded campaign.
- People who consume local news are more likely to vote locally. The authors of a study from Pennsylvania State University examined the habits of people who consume local and national media, on both traditional and digital platforms, and found both types of news consumption are positive predictors of voting at both levels.
- The act of reading a newspaper can mobilize as many as 13 percent of non-voters to vote, Matthew Gentzkow testified to the Federal Trade Commission in 2009. The statistic comes from a study which found that “newspapers have a robust positive effect on political participation” noting in particular that one additional newspaper in a region can boost voter turnout by approximately 0.3 percentage points.
- Consuming local journalism is associated with consistent voting in local elections and a strong connection to community. Pew Research Center analysts found in 2016 that more than a quarter of U.S. adults say they always vote in local elections, and they also have “strikingly stronger” local news habits than people who don’t vote locally on a regular basis.
- Reading local newspapers’ political coverage helps people understand how important local elections are and affects how much they participate in them. Researchers surveyed people in three small Midwest communities to learn more about their media use, political knowledge, and participation in local elections and found newspaper political news exposure strongly predicted political participation, people’s perceived importance of local municipal elections, and how much they voted.
- Local news can boost voting by young people, and help them feel better prepared to go to the polls. Research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement found that local news was a critical tool that young voters, especially people of color, turned to ahead of the 2020 election. The researchers say even more could be done by newsrooms to serve this population, and “local news media holds immense potential as a stakeholder in youth civic and political engagement.”
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