By Colin McGregor
A thorough and comprehensive study by researchers at Harvard University shows that where there is less local reporting, there is increased political polarization. In other words, when no one is watching, politicians become more radical, either on the left or on the right. (Local Newspaper Decline and Political Polarization – Evidence from a Multi-Party Setting by Fabio Ellger, Hanno Hilbig, Sascha Riaz and Philipp Tillmann, September 2022). Other American studies maintain the same conclusion.
And the readership of the city or town without local news suffers: after local news releases, consumers substitute local news with national tabloid news.
In established democracies, according to the researchers, local politics is often seen as more consensual and less politicized than national politics, with less emphasis on partisan differences. The decline of local news can increase polarization by exposing voters to national — and less consensual — politics. In particular, this can happen when consumers replace local media with national news.
What pressures do local newspapers face if they annoy or irritate local councils? Do they risk having to close their doors if a city council is annoyed by what they have to say?
According to Yvan Noé Girouard, director general of AMECQ (The Quebec Association of Community Written Media, or L’Association des médias écrits communautaires du Québec), it happens. One way a city council can force a closure is for the council itself to start a newspaper.
“There was a small community newspaper in a very small municipality in Chaudière-Appalaches (Saint-Raphaël-de-Bellechasse). They closed a year ago. The newspaper published open letters, often letters directed to the municipal council, settlings of accounts.”
He continues: “The municipality paid a subsidy in exchange for the newspaper publishing their official announcements.”
The municipality, angered by the newspaper, withdrew its subsidy and published its own newsletter. “There was competition for advertisers,” Yvan Noé observes.
He cites another example of a newspaper that closed for the same reason – in Saint-Bonaventure, near Drummondville, population 1,017 according to Wikipedia. It is especially in very small municipalities that this kind of thing is likely to happen…
When the Cat’s Away…
Do municipal politicians act differently away from the gaze of journalists? The bulletins published by the municipalities do not contain any real reporting, of course. Will those who will be elected after the disappearance of the regional media be more radical? This question deserves a study of its own. But AMECQ has conducted several studies on community print media in Quebec, and they have revealed how these media are really appreciated in their communities.
“The paper versions are left in living rooms for a month,” says Yvan Noé. But the future of the regional print media is threatened by the aging of the population, which has reduced the number of volunteers working in the field. “Volunteer turnover is a problem,” he admits. “People who started working thirty years ago were in their thirties, but now they are in their seventies.” Do they understand the technology used these days, Yvan Noé asks?
The new generation is “involved in digital,” explains Yvan Noé. “It takes all our strength to do digital.” But some local newspapers have not gotten into this game. Le Journal Tam-Tam, the community newspaper for the Matapédia-et-les-Plateaux sector in the Gaspé, only needs a Facebook page and paper editions. No website at all. They describe their newspaper as “a unifying tool.” Like all good regional newspapers.
According to data studied by Ellger and his colleagues, newspaper closures are more likely in counties experiencing population decline. This suggests that newspaper closures are a result of a shrinking consumer base.