A dearth of local news correlated with a lack of civic engagement, the study found, based on looking at voter turnout in special elections in all 39 Washington counties
The Center Square Washington
Dwindling local news options in Washington state could have dire consequences, according to the findings of a lengthy report from the League of Women Voters of Washington.
Three daily newspapers in Washington and more than two dozen weeklies have shuttered since 2004, according to the 133-page “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy.”
There have been consolidations and buyouts, too, leading to fears of media giants dominating the field. Currently, per the report, six Washington newspapers are owned by hedge funds.
Two people involved in the report, which came out in late 2022, appeared on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” on Thursday to discuss what it all means: Lunell Haught, who teaches at Gonzaga University and is the immediate past president of the league, and Dee Anne Finken, a former reporter for McClatchy newspapers, who teaches journalism at Clark College and who co-chaired the study.
A dearth of local news correlated with a lack of civic engagement, the study found, based on looking at voter turnout in special elections in all 39 Washington counties.
“And in every county except one, beginning in 2008 to 2021, we saw reduced voter turnout,” Finken said. “We also saw reduced news publications, right. It all followed suit.”
Asotin County in southwest Washington saw the biggest decrease – 13% – in voter turnout over the time period in question, she added.
Taxpayers are also impacted by a lack of local news coverage, according to the report.
“One of the most fascinating pieces of research that I think you [Finken] came up with was the economic study,” Haught noted. “When there is no local news, the cost of borrowing money by a local government – the financing costs – is $650,000 per issue higher than where there is no – I’m going to call it a watchdog function. So there’s a dollars and cents reason why the news industry, local, makes a difference.”
The topic of public health campaigns and local media came up as well, at a time when the state and the country as a whole are getting back to normal in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the impacts of our study was that reduced local news has affected public health campaigns, and that goes both ways, meaning it’s hard to get good information out to the public, but it’s also harder for scientists to get good information and – or public health officials to take action,” Finken said. “If you don’t have the kind of observing surveillance, you don’t learn about a disease outbreak, you know, that’s going on in a community.”
As for what can be done to improve the local news situation in the Evergreen State, part of the answer involves government, the two women said.
“Now that’s not necessarily saying we think the government should give money, public funding,” Finken explained. “We’re not saying that. But we ought to support opportunities where it can survive.”
That includes championing a bill passed the Legislature this session that has been signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Senate Bill 5199 provides a tax break for newspaper publishers. Specifically, it reduces the business and occupation tax rate to 0% for newspaper publishing and for news websites that are successors to newspapers that were published prior to Jan. 1, 2008. The tax break is effective for 10 years, beginning on Jan. 1, 2024.
“And that was a move that aligned with our position on making lobbying for conditions that allow news publications to survive and thrive,” Finken said, likening it to tax breaks enjoyed by other industries like aerospace and dairy farming.
Haught reiterated that she and her colleague are not calling for state-supported, publicly-funded journalism.
“There is a caveat,” she said, “which is control of the content must remain exclusively with the news organizations.”
This year, the Legislature also allocated $2.4 million in the state budget over two years for establishing a new public-interest journalism fellowship program in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications at Washington State University. The fellowship, which will send eight recent college graduates to news outlets across the state, is meant to support local reporting.
This report was first published by The Center Square Washington.
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