When Papers Die 

Princeton economist and ex-journalist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl examines the fallout: dangers to democracy.

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You can take the man out of newspapers, but you can't take newspapers out of the man. Seven years ago, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl was a reporter; today, he investigates the business behind the news as an economics and public-affairs professor at Princeton University.

In March Schulhofer-Wohl, along with undergraduate student Miguel Garrido, published “Do Newspapers Matter?” a pithy study concluding that the 2007 closure of The Cincinnati Post affected many markers of democracy: voter turnout, the number of candidates running for municipal office and the re-election chances for incumbents.

In part, Schulhofer-Wohl chose the afternoon newspaper, a small E.W. Scripps Co. publication covering Cincinnati and the northern Kentucky suburbs, because of its interesting business side. Like a number of faltering papers in the 1970s, the Post obtained an exemption from antitrust laws under the Newspaper Preservation Act, passed in 1970. To cut costs it formed a joint-operating agreement with the competing paper in town, the Cincinnati Enquirer.

When the agreement terminated, the Post quietly disappeared, and, as Schulhofer-Wohl is trying to prove — though not speculate further — it was not for the better.

Style: What sparked your interest in this issue?

Schulhofer-Wohl: I actually used to work in newspapers. Before going to school in economics, I worked as a reporter and copy editor at several daily newspapers. I've just always been interested in whether journalists and newspapers are accomplishing what they hope they are. In particular, I worked for a Scripps Co. newspaper [the Birmingham Post-Herald in Alabama], that was part of a joint-operating agreement, and that has since closed, so I was very interested in joint-operating agreements and does it matter if we keep newspapers open through them.

What other areas of public or private life — besides local politics — do you think could be affected by the closure of a local newspaper?

In principle, almost any area. It depends a lot on what a given newspaper is choosing to write about. To give you an example, another newspaper I used to work at — the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — has been, like all newspapers, having to cut its staff a lot lately. [Earlier this summer the paper] announced that a large number of staff members took buyouts. … and what was really striking was how many of them were the arts critics. The classical-music critic took a buyout. The theater critic took a buyout. The pop-music critic took a buyout. And so, depending on where a paper has been strong, that's what you're going to lose.

The Cincinnati Post — was it particularly strong in local politics coverage?

What it really focused on, especially in its later years, was local anything in Kentucky. They were focused on being the local newspaper for these tiny little towns. I mean, a few of these suburbs are pretty big, like 30,000 … but a lot of them are really small, and they were focused on just writing about anything that happened there. But in a small town anything that happens is kind of political.

The Economist recently published an article about how in some cities in England that have lost their local papers, residents have started producing pamphlets filled mostly with town meeting times — not quite local gossip, but not quite local politics. Do you think people actually want serious news, about, say, municipal politics?

It depends on what you mean by want, because news coverage is expensive, right? … I learned from being in the business that if you cover something full-time you develop some expertise. And you get to know people and you can do it a lot better than if it's something you do in a few spare minutes, and you develop some skills over doing it for many years. But if you're going to have someone do that, that costs money.

The question is not, Would people read it if it were free? The question is, Are they willing to pay enough to cover the costs of producing it? I think it's probably true that people, if it were free, would love to learn about at least a fair amount of local politics — perhaps not every nitty-gritty detail, but they probably want to know it if it's free. But are they willing to pay the full cost? Historically in the U.S., people never have … 75 percent of the revenue of newspapers came from ads.

Your study suggests that a newspaper could be important enough to keep in business even if it's no longer profitable. But how then would a paper stay in business?

I don't know if I want to go there. I guess what the study shows is that local politics got less competitive after this newspaper closed, with all kinds of caveats about whether we really did [the study] right, and it being a case study and a small sample and all of this. But even if you just take at face value that what this shows is that local politics got less competitive, to me, I don't know. I don't know at all where to go from there.

Then you have to start making value judgments about whether competitive local politics is a good thing. And, if so, if it's money-losing to provide this coverage … Do you want the government subsidizing free press? That doesn't seem like a good idea. So beyond saying that it appears that local politics got less competitive when The Cincinnati Post closed, I'm not really very willing to go much beyond that in terms of what this implies.

In terms of your own study, would you want to continue this in any direction, or do you plan to?

Yeah, I think there are a lot of interesting questions. The most obvious one is just, “What happens in the long run?” We looked at this a year after the Post closed, and in the long run, things could look very different. It may take time for people to start up good local blogs, or even realize that they want to, or to find ways to pay for other local coverage. Or maybe that's not going to happen. The long run might be very different from the short run, or it might not.

We wrote this up now because it's an issue of very current public policy going on in the industry ... But there's certainly a lot more to be said here just by looking at the long run in this particular city, which we intend to do. And then you could also think about looking at other cities. There are plenty of places that are losing newspapers right now, unfortunately.

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