What Newspapers Do, Have Done, and Will Do

Originally published in The New York Times

February 13, 2009
Eduardo Porter (Reporter, The New York Times

Outside the shrinking guild of scribblers, it’s disappointingly hard to find much sympathy for the beleaguered newspaper industry. Only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what The New York Times publishes, according to a poll last year by the Pew Research Center. If the Internet is putting us out of business, who cares?

It matters. The argument that if newspapers go bust there will be nobody covering city hall is true. It’s also true that corruption will rise, legislation will more easily be captured by vested interests and voter turnout will fall.

In 1981, the Indian economist Amartya Sen argued that the famine caused by China’s Great Leap Forward could never have happened in India because the government could not have ignored the plight of its people. “Newspapers play an important part in this,” he said.

From the poorest country to the richest, a welter of academic research since then points to the importance of an independent press — mostly newspapers — in disseminating hard-to-get information, mobilizing the public and putting pressure on government and businesses in favor of the public good.

During the Great Depression, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration doled out more money in counties with more radios. Today, Hispanic voter turnout is higher, relative to the non-Hispanic vote, where there is a local Spanish-language TV station.

Companies in countries with a larger daily newspaper circulation are fairer to minority shareholders and have a better record responding to environmental concerns. And a 2000 study by Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess of the London School of Economics proved Sen to be right: governments in India provide more public food and disaster relief in hard times in states where newspaper circulation is higher.

It’s easy to forget the role of an independent press in the development of democratic institutions in the United States. Through much of the 19th century, newspapers were mostly partisan mouthpieces. But as circulation and advertising grew, they shed political allegiances and started competing for customers by investigating shady deals and taking up populist causes.

Claudia Goldin and Edward Glaeserof Harvard University and Matthew Gentzkow of the University of Chicago found that between 1870 and 1920, the share of political dailies that claimed to be independent rose from 11 percent to between 40 percent and 60 percent. Corruption, measured by an index of articles mentioning the topic in The Times, plummeted by four-fifths over this period.

From the creation of the Food and Drug Administration to limits on working hours, a lot of progressive-era reforms might have failed without an independent press. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, Alexander Dyck of the University of Toronto and David Moss of Harvard Business School analyzed muckraking magazines of the period, like McClure’s and Collier’s.

Analyzing Congressional votes on regulatory legislation related to issues covered in these magazines, the researchers found that representatives in districts in which the magazines had larger circulations became more favorable to the populist causes exposed in their articles. Cosmopolitan’s 1906 series “Treason in the Senate” pushed many senators in 1911 to vote for the 17th Amendment, which mandated that senators be elected by popular vote rather than chosen by governors. It had been soundly rejected in 1902.

These days, even the harshest newspaper critics admit that citizens need information. They argue that the Internet will empower ordinary people to do the task themselves, better.

I’m not so sure. In a recent study, Mr. Gentzkow concluded that the introduction of television in the 1940s and 1950s was responsible for between a quarter and a half of the decline in voter turnout since then, as Americans cut back on local newspapers and radio, which had more political content.

Some alternatives, like Politico.com and ProPublica, an investigative reporting outfit financed by philanthropy, do original journalism. But they are tiny. Cash-strapped TV stations depend on newspapers for much of their local news coverage. Cable news is increasingly commentary. And rather than a citizen reporter, the Internet has given us the citizen pundit, who comments on: newspaper articles.

Reporting the news in far-flung countries, spending weeks on investigations of uncertain payoff, fighting for freedom of information in court — is expensive. Virtually the only entities still doing it on the necessary scale are newspapers. Letting them go on the expectation that the Internet will enable a better-informed citizenry seems like a risky bet.