Readers of the Central Virginia should recall learning that their sister papers, the Hanover Herald-Progress, and the Caroline Progress went out of business this past spring. With the CV’s editor, asking in an editorial “Where will the people in those communities get that type of information now?”
A question which Lee Shaker, a professor of politics and media at Portland State University has looked into, finding that self-reported measures of civic engagement – like contacting an election official or attending a local civic organization - dropped significantly after a local paper shut down, rebounding to just half of previous levels after two years.
Other political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes studied the effect of both closures and curtailed coverage across America on elections for US Representatives, races which are for national office, but where voters are local.
Hayes says when papers close or cut coverage, people are less capable of identifying who's running, know what the candidate's positions on the issues are, and ultimately less likely to vote "When local papers cut coverage there's essentially nothing to take its place in these local communities," he says, adding while there have been many online local news experiments they tend to be in already media-rich environments or not as focused on public affairs.
This affects everyone, Hayes says, even those who are considered politically engaged. "I suspect over the long term, people who are pretty politically engaged figure out ways to sort of maintain their level of participation," he says. "I'm not sure they'll be necessarily as knowledgeable as they were."
Penelope Muse Abernathy, a professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina, says the closure of community newspapers means more than a loss of information.
Local news helps set the agenda for public debates by bringing particular issues to public attention, encourages regional business development by connecting local businesses with local residents (whether through ads or coverage) and can reflect what's similar or different about a national problem on the local level, she says.
"A strong local newspaper shows you how you are related to people you may not know you're related to," Abernathy says.
There are other effects too. A recent study found cities' borrowing costs to build projects like roads and schools rose after newspapers closed - making those projects more expensive to taxpayers. As similar areas without a newspaper closure did not see those effects, they hypothesize that the loss of scrutiny on local government led to more mismanagement of public funds.
Which brings up the question; what happens to communities when their local paper has other priorities? It’s no secret that the Central Virginian frequently reprints op-ed's from organizations like The Family Research Council, and The National Review, or that their commentary is extremely far to the right.
Whether these pieces are “must run” content, as with FOX NOISE and local Sinclair TV stations is irrelevant, the fact remains that they are intended to reinforce retrograde attitudes, distort the issues, and misinform their readers. What is relevant that it is being driven by their parent company Lakeway Publishers rentier mentality, focused on promoting their brand as cheaply as possible regardless of the consequences.
A mentality which apparently drives the CV’s "just the quotes" brand of reporting, where obvious follow up questions are not asked, and important local events aren’t even covered. Most notably, the three Town Hall Meetings in 2014 &15 with Louisa’s two state senators and delegate.
If local citizens hadn’t submitted multiple letters, most of the CV’s readers would have never known these meetings took place. The politest thing one can say about such selective coverage is “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.”
So pardon my cynicism as the CV claims in oversized ads that they support their readers’ right to know, when their editorials actively promotes extreme and misleading narratives, and their reporting minimizes the consequences of local official’s actions.
That being said, the CV has improved the quantity and quality their local coverage. Now instead of minimal news, the CV’s readers can look forward to reading a collection of disjointed “factoids.” Like this weeks front page article about state laws which just went into effect.
While this “accurate and factual information” represents a marked improvement over their previous practice of cutting and pasting information about the General Assemblies affairs from Delegate Farrell’s press releases. For most of their readers, there was so little meaningful context to this “information” that it might as well been factoids from outer space.
Likewise, the CV printed eight stories this year about the Broadband Authority and the Board of Supervisors, consistently avoiding discussing the three elephants in the room. That Supervisors Wade, Adams and Williams were attempting a hostile takeover of the board, doing everything they could to subvert the broadband authority and derail the Broadband project, among other things.
The closest the CV ever got to admitting this reality was when they quoted now outgoing Supervisor Troy Wade claiming “I used to be the one with new and fresh ideas, but I ‘m not that one anymore.”
In the months leading up to the mid terms, and the 2019 state elections, elections which will include three members of the Board of Supervisors, it remains to be seen if the CV can identify who has the “fresh ideas,” and what if any merit those ideas have, or if we will get more of the usual stenography?