Fewer following the news, to democracy’s peril


Apologies for adding to the list of things to be scared of this Halloween season.

But I’m spooked by a new report that found fewer and fewer Americans are paying attention to the news. Especially with elections just around the corner.

Brier Dudley's SAVE THE FREE PRESS columns are made available for free to the public and to other newspapers for their use — to build awareness of the local journalism crisis and potential solutions. The entire body of work is viewable here: st.news/SavetheFreePress

Only four in 10 are closely following what’s happening in their communities and the world nowadays, according to the survey released last week by Pew Research Center.

In 2016, 51% of U.S. adults followed the news “all or most of the time.” That fell to 38% in 2022, Pew found.

The number of Americans who hardly ever follow the news has nearly doubled since 2016, from 5% to 9%.

Pew noted that this comes amid changes in news consumption habits, declining trust in the media and high levels of news fatigue.

I fear that we’re becoming a land of digital lotus eaters, scrolling and streaming our days away, increasingly unaware of what’s happening beyond our screens.

This follows a two-decade decline in local news coverage that’s resulting in civic illiteracy and disengagement and eroding democracy.

It also highlights the potential death spiral for local newspapers, and why the federal government needs to intervene and help save what’s left of the industry before it’s too late.

The findings also drive home that it’s critical for the industry to address declining trust in its work, and for students to learn why it’s important to be an informed citizen.

Fewer Americans following the news is “a problem on multiple levels,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics and public policy professor at the University of Virginia.

“We’ve already seen downward trends when it comes to people’s interest in politics and the extent to which they have the kind of knowledge required to hold elected officials accountable,” she said. “We also know that at the local level, when people stop following what’s going on, voter turnout declines, so these trends bode pretty poorly for any sort of thriving democracy, whether you’re talking about participation or knowledge or interest.”

Pew’s research also points to the conundrum for local newspapers.

As advertising shifted to a handful of dominant tech companies, news outlets cut staff to stay afloat. Through cutbacks, closures and consolidation, newspaper employment fell 70% since 2005, according to research by Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Small and large outlets are affected. The largest 25 U.S. papers saw their combined circulation fall 14% in the first quarter of 2023, according to trade publication Press Gazette. It also reported that the Top 10 news websites globally all saw year over year declines in visits in September.

Lately cost and labor pressures are pushing dailies to reduce the number of days they print and increasingly use postal delivery, which is slower and breaks the daily news habit.

Couple that with Wall Street types acquiring and debt-burdening the country’s largest newspaper chains, resulting in wafer-thin “ghost” newspapers, and readership declines were inevitable.

“When you don’t have a vibrant local news community it becomes really difficult to remind people that it is their civic responsibility to consume the news, so the supply and demand are definitely linked,” Lawless said.

That’s why other democracies are pursuing ways to sustain their news industries, such as payroll tax credits and policies enabling outlets to negotiate better deals with dominant tech platforms. Congress has similar proposals in hand but has yet to act.

Meanwhile fewer people are following news, meaning more Americans are uninformed.

“I think there are myriad factors behind these numbers — information overload, a trust deficit and fatigue. But I worry that we may have entered a doom loop,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and local news chair at Medill.

“There are fewer local news organizations and fewer journalists, so there’s less original, relevant reporting being produced for the public,” he said via email.

“So, are folks not paying attention because there’s less for them to pay attention to? And if local news organizations are less relevant to their communities, that’s ultimately a threat to their financial sustainability.”

This isn’t just me trying to save my job.

When the news goes, not only do fewer people vote, fewer run for office and participate in civic activities.

Among people who don’t read the news, just 42% can name their mayor and only 16% know who is leading their local school district.

That was as of 2019, according to research Lawless and George Washington University Professor Danny Hayes published in their 2021 book, “News Hole: The Demise of Local Journalism and Civic Engagement.”

Pew also found a partisan gap in news consumption.

In 2016 Republicans were particularly well-informed, with 57% closely following news. That fell to 37% as of August 2022, a 20% decline.

Among survey respondents who lean Democrat, the share closely following the news went from 49% to 42% over that same period, a 7% difference.

Former President Donald Trump, who constantly attacked the press, deserves some of the blame.

I think the geographic spread of news deserts is also a factor. Rural and suburban areas are more likely to have lost local newspapers and those places have more Republican leaning voters.

Regardless, the loss of local coverage is nationalizing news and increasing partisanship, as people turn to national outlets and TV.

“The broader implications of that are people are relying more on national news to extrapolate what it must be like at the local level,” Lawless said. “At a time when school boards are making such important decisions, city councils are making such important decisions, it’s hard to imagine a time when it’s more important for people to have that kind of information and they have less of it than they ever have.”

On the positive side, this helps explain why voters make some horrifying choices, but I’m no less afraid.

Brier Dudley on Twitter: @BrierDudley is editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative. Its weekly newsletter: https://st.news/FreePressNewsletter. Reach him at bdudley@seattletimes.com.


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