An interesting study recently published in the journal Political Communication studies the level of civic engagement following the closure of daily newspapers in Seattle and Denver. The paper, Dead Newspapers and Citizens Civic Engagement, by Lee Shaker asserts that civic engagement in Seattle and Denver dropped from 2008 to 2009 after the Seattle PI and Rocky Mountain News closed their doors.
It is an interesting research effort that uses data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) conducted by the United States Census Bureau to analyze year over year participation in activities such as visiting a politician or attending a community organization meeting, such as a PTA or neighborhood watch group.
Reading the study I was struck by all the ways in which communities are connected with their local newspaper, and how the internet — and social media sites — have possibly drawn people away from their local news.
Thinking back to 2008 and 2009, there was significant discussion among my transportation colleagues about the shifting sands of media, and concerns we shared about how best to reach an audience the seemed to be moving away from printed publications. Marshall McLuhan, a noted communication theorist, declared in the 1960s the famous line, “the media is the message.” I began to tell my colleagues that if McLuhan was right, then “we are the media.”
Of course McLuhan was talking about media in the context of the technology that delivered the information. But I was suggesting that each of us, as individual persons and as a community of transportation communicators, was now a content producer. The messages were no longer limited by the technology.
The point is that as we have seen newspaper circulation decline, the content feeding those newspapers has moved too. It was not only that readership declined, the communications professionals hunting those readers began to look for new places to deliver our news. It was no longer enough to send a reporter or newspaper a standard news release. We had to embrace new information delivery channels and opportunities.
Perhaps what we see in the 2008-2009 in Seattle and Denver was more than just a decline in civic engagement due to shuttering of newspapers. It quite possibly was also a communications profession that had no other choice but to find how to reach their key audiences without the help of those newspapers.
If people did not know about the meeting — whether it was for the PTA, neighborhood watch or the local transportation planning project — they probably were not going to attend. Was that because the newspaper closed or was that because we, as transportation communicators, had not figured out how to reach them?