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Saturday, October 22, 2016

On a warm October night toward the end of the 2014 campaign, almost every politician running for a major office here in the swing state of Colorado appeared at a candidate forum in southeast Denver. The topics discussed were pressing: a potential war with ISIS, voting rights, a still-struggling economy. But one key element was in conspicuously short supply: the media.

This was increasingly the reality in much of the country, as campaigns played out in communities where the local press corps has been thinned by layoffs and newspaper closures. What if you held an election and nobody showed up to cover it? Americans have now discovered the answer: You get an election with lots of paid ads, but with little journalism, context or objective facts.

Between 2003 and 2012, the newspaper workforce decreased by 30 percent nationally, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. That has included a major reduction in the number of newspaper reporters assigned to cover state and local politics. Newspaper layoffs have ripple effects for the entire local news ecosystem, because, as the Congressional Research Service noted, television, radio and online outlets often “piggyback on reporting done by much larger newspaper staffs.” Meanwhile, recent studies from the University of Chicago and the Federal Reserve Bank suggest the closure of newspapers can ultimately depress voter turnout in local elections.

Colorado is a microcosm of the hollowing out of local media. In 2009, the state lost its second-largest newspaper with the shuttering of the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News. The state’s only remaining major daily, the Denver Post, has had rolling layoffs.

According to Denver Post editor Greg Moore, in the 2014 election cycle the paper had only 7 reporters covering elections throughout the state — a 50 percent reduction in the last 5 years. Challengers in districts that the Post decided not to cover say the media’s decisions about resources may help determine election outcomes.

“It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the local press assumes a race can’t be close, then they don’t cover it, and then that suggests to voters a candidate isn’t credible,” said Martin Walsh, the Republican congressional candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Denver’s Democratic representative, Diana DeGette. “Ultimately, that guarantees that the race won’t be close.”

Even stories that do get published may have less of an impact without other journalists around to track reaction or do follow-up stories.

“With so many newspapers and news outlets in general having fewer resources, there’s no pressure or incentive for candidates to engage with the press and there’s no echo chamber that makes candidates feel like they have to respond to anything,” Fox 31 reporter Eli Stokols said. He noted that Republican U.S. Senator-elect Cory Gardner, for example, rarely appeared in unscripted settings with journalists, preferring instead to simply blanket the airwaves with ads.

Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic candidate in Colorado’s closely contested 6th district, said that what little campaign coverage there is often ends up being about the candidates’ ads, because that requires minimal time, travel and expense to cover.

“It’s not quite a Seinfeld episode,” he said. “It’s not a show about nothing, but the coverage has become a show about a show.”

The trouble, of course, is that the show should be about important issues like economic policy, climate change and national security (to name a few). And with a more vibrant local media doing more than just regurgitating poll numbers and reviewing ads, it can be. But that vibrancy requires two things: a genuine commitment and willingness to do the hard work of serious journalism and enough resources to succeed.

Both of those factors are in short supply. That means the most basic ingredients of a functioning democracy will probably remain in short supply, too.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising and Back to Our Future. Email [email protected], follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

Photo: Scorpions and Centaurs via Flickr

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  • Buford2k11

    the real Fourth Estate has been killed by the corporations and replaced with Fox, and CNN and NBC and CBS and, and, and….the list of the failures of journalism, corporate capture and subsequent corruption is long and littered with big names gone sour….

    • bckrd1

      It’s, the Koch’s, tenacles have even reached PBS. Sad.

  • ExRadioGuy15

    Buford2k11 is correct….and, the decline of a “free” press can be traced to two events:
    1987: Ronald Reagan kills the “Fairness Doctrine”, which required television and radio media to give “equal time” to all issues;
    1996: the Telecommunications Act is written and passed by a GOP Congress. Among the many portions of the law: restrictions on media ownership (radio and TV) were lifted. Before the law, one person/company could only own one AM radio station, one FM radio station and one TV station per market. The Act has now succeeded in having 90% of media being owned by SIX BIG CORPORATIONS….ssmdh
    The next thing to remember is one of the 15 defining characteristics of Fascism: control of the mass media. It is a pathetically untrue GOP Con talking point that, “Liberals control the media”. Not only is that talking point untrue, it’s also a psychiatric ploy known as “projection”, which is the worst form of hypocrisy. That 90% of media controlled by those six big corporations? They’re owned and operated by either Cons or GOP sympathizers who order their charges to employ “false equivalency” or, even worse, to ignore the Fascism, corruption, elitism, hypocrisy, bigotry, incompetence, arrogance, greed and insanity of the GOP.

    • bckrd1

      All true and it is succeeding. I am heartened though by the youth I am hearing about like in Jefferson County, Colorado. Google their protesting against the school board. I think these kids are seeing the real politics of controlling them and they are fighting back. They will be our future politicians and that is what we need.

    • idamag

      You are absolutely right. There was also the deregulation of the FCC in 2009.

  • idamag

    I have been studying Teddy Roosevelt. He broke down the too-big-to-fail monopolies. He cleaned up politics against some big power. Why can’t it be done now? TR’s biggest ally – journalism and the press. This was before all the deregulation. Real journalism is hard to find. We are bombarded with liars and hate mongers

    • tdm3624

      I also blame the American people. Too distracted with their electronic devices to really dig deep into an issue and become informed. It’s easier to listen to someone who echoes what you already believe. Some great journalistic pieces take time to really understand what the reporters are trying to convey.

      • idamag

        I find it disturbing that so many people buy into the propaganda of the “I want it all” people and are thinking ignorance is a virtue.