What’s at risk is not just watchdog journalism but the flow of ordinary news to the public. As my colleagues Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido show in their study of the impact of the closing of The Cincinnati Post, the loss of regular coverage of local communities reduces voter turnout and the likelihood that challengers can unseat political incumbents. Other studies suggest that when news diminishes, corruption increases. The political system becomes sclerotic and unresponsive.

The kinds of initiatives that Downie and Schudson highlight can accomplish a great deal. Still, even with additional financial support, journalism is likely to become more of a specialized interest, with a narrower reach and little presence in many communities, especially those with low incomes. In this new environment, there is an increased potential for deepening rot at the lower levels of the federal system. Like every other American, I love sunny forecasts and stories of enterprise and renewal. But as wonderful as many new initiatives are, they confront deeper forces that we had better acknowledge if we are to have any chance of overcoming them.

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Paul Starr is Stuart Professor of Communications and Public Affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School and co-editor of The American Prospect.