Our View: Polarization takes over when local papers disappear

Fair warning: We’re preaching to the choir.

This editorial is warning about the problem of too many people putting down their local newspapers — to the people who are still picking them up (in analog or digital form).

But we’re going to preach anyway.

Newspapers have been slowly disappearing from the American landscape for years now, thanks to a perfect storm of Craigslist, Facebook, poor civics education and the print industry’s own failures to adapt.

Studies have shown communities that lose their local paper get less effective, more expensive government; and voter participation drops without a dependable local news outlet.

A new study published in the Journal of Communication shows the loss of local newspapers has coincided with — and even contributed to — the disastrous political polarization gripping the country.

The researchers compared 66 communities that lost a newspaper in the last 20 years to 77 communities that still have a local paper.

The communities that lost their newspapers saw a “small but significant” decline in “split-ticket” voting — when voters choose candidates from different political parties for different races.

“With fewer opportunities to find out about local politicians, citizens are more likely to turn to national sources like cable news and apply their feelings about national politics to people running for the town council or state legislature,” according to an Associated Press report on the study.

You don’t have to live in a newspaper desert to know exactly what we’re talking about.

We all feel the mounting pressure to follow every move of our national politicians in real-time; and the directly-related pressure to see every bit of news through red or blue lenses.

Here’s an unsettling question: On how many of the first 36 days of 2019 has your mood been affected by something the president of the United States said or did?

Here’s another: On how many days of all 365 in 1999 do you think the president had a similar effect on you?

If your answer to the second question is larger than your answer to the first, you’re either a retired political operative or a liar.

The difference could have a little to do with presidential style, but nowhere near as much as you might think.

Presidential and national political influence over your personal life was greater in 2004 than in 2000; greater in 2008 than in 2004; greater in 2012 than in 2008; greater in 2016 than in 2012.

Revoltingly, it will be greater still in 2020.

The more national politics consume your time and define your worldview, the less attention you have to give to your local community — which is sadly where your attention could do the most good.

It didn’t matter, doesn’t matter and won’t matter who the president is as long as we continue down this divergent set of paths — away from knowing and respecting your neighbor, away from caring about local government, away from reading your local paper.

But you already know that because you’re reading this. You’re not one of the masses who live each day in a bubble defined entirely by the national media, believing the drama in D.C. to be the only thing that matters.

This is the Sisyphean battle we face: to convince those who are not reading to read, using the written word. It seems unlikely we’ll win.

So why are we preaching to the choir? Perhaps it’s just cathartic. Perhaps it’s because editorials are always a little preachy.

But it’s also because we’re optimists, and we’re hoping against the odds we’re wrong.