What the US Newspaper Crisis Means for Public Accountability

Working Paper

The connection between a free press and the ability to hold public officials to account is one of the benchmarks of liberal democracy. In particular, accountability journalism - understood to encompass investigative and public affairs journalism - is seen as absolutely critical for people to have the knowledge they need in order to participate fully as citizens (Schudson, 2018). One of the most important functions of accountability journalism is to do just that– to hold powerful people and institutions to account by publicizing and monitoring their activities, serving as a burglar alarm that sounds when something goes awry (Zaller, 2003).

Newspapers have long provided the bulk of this coverage, but local newspapers in the US face unprecedented crisis as the commercial ad-driven model for local news collapses. Since 2004, more than 1800 newspapers have closed, about 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers, creating what some call “news deserts,” or places that have no regular access to local news and information (Abernathy, 2018). This paper considers how these challenges to the local news and information environment across the US might impact the ability of journalists to hold public officials accountable. In particular, this paper examines the relationship between losses in news employment, losses in newspaper circulation, and changes in federal prosecutions for public corruption across all 94 US court districts and 3143 counties to better understand the impact that the newspaper crisis might have on governance, expanding on previous work that thus far has explored state-level or municipal concerns (Rubado and Jennings, 2020; Gao, Lee, and Murphy, 2020) .

This paper makes three interventions. First, we argue historical support for robust accountability journalism in the US is far more fragmented than might be presumed by nostalgia for the “high modern era” of journalism featuring Watergate and the Pentagon Papers (Hallin, 1992). Normative blindspots impact empirical inquiry: regardless of outcome, journalism always matters for democracy. Second, this paper argues that there is limited empirical support, particularly in a hybrid media environment (Chadwick, 2017), that journalism serves as a systematic check against corruption-either as a deterrent or an enforcer of good governance. Third, this paper aims to consider the relationship between diminished local news provision and the presence or absence of public corruption, also considering how related shifts such as changes in ownership or employment might impact the presumptive ability of journalism to shed light on bad actors.

The empirical portion of this analysis relies on three main sources of data: the annual county averages of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics State and County Employment (Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, the UNC Hussman School News Deserts dataset, and the US Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section’s prosecutions for public corruption, annualized data at the district court level. Looking across the time span from 2004 to 2019, we are able to consider the relationship between news provision, variations of news publisher’s ownership models, and these corruption prosecutions at the district court level. We also consider how “replacement” efforts, such as the presence of a new philanthropic non-profit news outlet impacts this relationship.

Ultimately, this paper does not claim to definitively answer whether news deserts will make the US a more corrupt and less democratic country, although extant theory would predict this would be the case. Rather, the aim of this paper is to complicate the normative understanding of journalism’s potential for informing the public and holding the powerful accountable.

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