Pew: Few Americans Fear the Loss of Their Local Newspaper

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The struggles of the science beat at local newspapers have little or nothing to do with scientific illiteracy or public respect for science and much more to do with the economic climate and a more general and profound absence of public appreciation for the role of the press in civic life. Consider this stark finding from a just released Pew report: Less than a majority of Americans believe that the loss of their local newspaper would critically harm the health of their community.

So what's going on here? Science has been and remains the dominant force in American culture. Research shows that scientists are deeply trusted by the public, and they enjoy high levels of social status and prestige. On key policy issues, the American public believes that scientists have greater levels of expertise and should have more say in key policy debates than religious leaders, industry, or government officials. Over time, Americans have maintained an unchanging optimism in science to improve their quality of life and to grow the economy while public trust in other institutions including the media has plummeted.

So while the public deeply respects and even strongly defers to the cultural authority of science, they use this strong deference as the ultimate heuristic, replacing the motivation to seek out quality science coverage with blind trust on most science-related issues. Only on a few issues such as climate change, evolution, and stem cell research where rival groups tell the public that science is at odds with something else they care deeply about--such as religion or the economy--does broad based public deference and support for science break down. In short, in the U.S. the default for culture is a blind faith in science, rather than a war on science.

So where does the connection to local newspapers come in? Because Americans lack both an appreciation for the importance of news in local civic life and also often strongly prefer to just trust science--many do not realize that if our local news organizations fail, the very infrastructure of our communities grows considerably weaker. In other words, if communities lack a strong source of science and public affairs information tailored to local concerns, than these communities will not be able to adapt to challenges such as climate change or economic recovery. Indeed, their citizens will be ill equipped to participate meaningfully in collective decisions and policy choices.

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Maybe its because so many local papers, like the one in my town, haven't done anything investigative or substantial since the late '70's.

I can get pablum anytime.

I haven't bothered with a local newspaper in 20 years. And now it's even much less of use (and a pain to recycle)

I read better science news on the net, better political coverage, more varied and better (as well as worse) analysis.

Nothing in the paper comes close to sources like Scienceblogs, or political commentary from left to right, authoritarian to libertarian, searchable news articles. Nope don't miss it a bit

This is a good breakdown, but what if your fundamental premise is incorrect. That is:

Is it possible that it's time we relied on some other institution to police our society?

Was it ever really a good idea to rely on an ad-supported medium to be a check on government and corporate misdeeds?

If 90% of the functionionality of the local paper has been successfully replaced by the internet (i.e. classifieds, reviews, being the only place to get wire service news that is now carried and apparently successfully supported by a million other websites, etc.) then wouldn't it be more expeditious to find a different way to fund the 10% that isn't going to be replaced by the internet?

And isn't it possible that a much-reduced local paper, that is online only, that solely focuses on what its journalists do well and can uniquely contribute could, after all, be funded by some mix of advertising, subscriptions, foundations and all the rest?

Maybe we should interpret the quality of the local newspapers as at least as much a cause of local news readership and perception of value as any underlying prejudice on the part of the readers about the inherent contribution of journalism to civic life.

By JR Minkel (not verified) on 17 Mar 2009 #permalink

Local newspapers have been made irrelevant by the Internet. There is no need to use actual paper to transmit all of the content that has historically been in newspapers. Moreover, Internet communication is faster, more convenient, more diverse, and more easily specialized than newspapers, esp. local newspapers, can be.