The Media Today

How the Collapse of Local Newsrooms Made All Politics National

February 2, 2024
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

As Iowa’s caucuses kicked into high gear last month, Ron DeSantis followed what once was a winning strategy: he barnstormed the state hard, hitting all ninety-nine counties as he trumpeted his support from Gov. Kim Reynolds. In New Hampshire, Nikki Haley ran a similar playbook, racing around with Gov. Chris Sununu and touting the endorsement of the Manchester Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper.

Former president Donald Trump, meanwhile, flew in and out for a few perfunctory rallies, accompanied by a handful of out-of-state MAGA-made stars, like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Elise Stefanik. He largely ignored the local press. It didn’t matter. He romped to victory in both states.

The old saying “All politics is local” can officially be tossed in the dustbin of history. The local kingmakers and specific issues that used to dominate early-state primaries and caucuses don’t matter as much in an increasingly nationalized, polarized environment.

And that’s because local news outlets have been hollowed out—leaving voters less attuned to local issues, and the stations and papers themselves with much less leverage to force candidates to answer questions important to the local audience. 

In 2018, the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, had a print circulation of 129,000. That’s roughly a quarter what it had been a few decades earlier—and by 2022 it had plunged all the way to 40,000, according to Nieman Lab. Gannett, which owns the paper, and its chief rival, Lee Enterprises, have both drastically slashed staff and payrolls across all their publications. It’s just as bleak in New Hampshire, where once-powerful newspapers like the Union Leader and Concord Monitor aren’t what they used to be.

Reduced circulations and viewership lead to reduced influence, and in recent years candidates have had relatively little reason to spend time indulging state outlets and the issues they cover. Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor and publisher of the Storm Lake Times, a small paper in Northwest Iowa. He’s interviewed numerous presidential candidates, and often pushed them on key local issues—like when he sat down with Bob Dole in 1996 for an extended interview about the industrial crop program.

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This year, Cullen noted that the only local issue that got any regular mention from the candidates in Iowa was ethanol—and it was rarely more than a talking point.

“Now the only thing [candidates] talk about is ethanol or ‘We’re going to put China in its place.’ How does that help the sixty-seven of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties that are losing population? How does that discussion really move that ball forward?” he said. “There was no serious discussion of the erosion of rural communities.”

The only candidate who granted him an interview was Asa Hutchinson, who consistently polled under 1 percent and dropped out right after the caucuses. 

“The weakness of the local press is reflected in the fact that the candidates just basically ignored us,” Cullen said. “You know, they can afford to ignore the Waterloo Courier, when they couldn’t have twenty years ago.”

It’s been trending this way for a few cycles now, for both parties. Trump famously never stayed overnight in New Hampshire at any point during the entire 2016 campaign, but still won the state’s primary by a double-digit margin. In 2020, Pete Buttigieg improved his standing in the polls not by camping out in Iowa, but by becoming a regular on MSNBC and working the national press. 

James Pindell has covered New Hampshire for two decades, with years at the most popular TV station, WMUR, before joining the Boston Globe (whose greater metro area includes southern New Hampshire). He said he interviewed then-candidate Barack Obama seven or eight times, but by the time 2020 rolled around many candidates barely gave his old colleagues the time of day. “Kamala Harris pretty much refused to do WMUR,” he said. “She didn’t think it was worth her time.” 

This time around? “They’re getting boxed out from Haley. They’re getting boxed out from Trump,” Pindell said. “And DeSantis was openly hostile, because he was openly hostile to everybody [in the press].”

WMUR was set to have its moment in the sun right before the primary: it was a cohost for the final GOP presidential debate before the New Hampshire primary. But Trump refused to participate in any debate, and at the last minute Haley opted to back out rather than have another one-on-one with DeSantis. The event was canceled.

Other notable stories:

  • Fallout continues from the shuttering of the startup news site The Messenger, which Mathew Ingram wrote about in this newsletter yesterday. Former staffers filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging that it violated both federal and New York State labor laws by failing to give them adequate notice that they would be laid off and denying them wages and benefits. (The company reportedly denied its ex-staffers severance and cut off their healthcare.) Jordan Hoffman, who was a film critic at the site, wrote for New York about its doomed clickbait strategy of “shovelling the furnaces with SEO coal.” And—after Jimmy Finkelstein, The Messenger’s founder, blamed the site’s failure on “economic headwinds”—Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton pushed back, arguing that Finkelstein himself, with his “bizarro nostalgia” for a past media era, is to blame.
  • Elsewhere, the cuts keep coming: yesterday, the Wall Street Journal laid off around twenty staffers in its Washington bureau, gutting the bureau’s business coverage and cutting a team dedicated to covering relations between the US and China. An official with the paper’s union attested to internal fury that the layoffs came amid contract negotiations between workers and management, while one of the affected staffers told Politico that the cuts hit like a “neutron bomb”; bosses said that those laid-off will be able to apply for newly created roles based in DC and New York. Meanwhile, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment firm that tracks media layoffs, calculated that five hundred and twenty-eight news workers in the US were laid off in total in January.
  • For the New York Times, Annie Karni reports that Mike Johnson—who has now been speaker of the House for a hundred days—is increasingly avoiding reporters in the halls of Congress by taking (or pretending to take) phone calls. Prior to winning the gavel, Johnson “would often stop and talk in the marble corridors surrounding the House floor, submitting to impromptu and sometimes lengthy question-and-answer sessions with reporters before and after votes,” but he has since “taken to avoiding that ritual,” Karni writes. His approach “is a striking change from the way Mr. Johnson’s two immediate predecessors handled the public-facing portion of the most powerful job in Congress.”
  • According to The Guardian and The Intercept, the Republican-led government of Louisiana used freedom of information laws to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for communications—including between the agency and journalists from local and national outlets—related to an EPA investigation in the state. David Cuillier, an expert in freedom of information requests, said that it is “totally weird and rare” for one branch of government to request such communications from another, and said that Louisiana’s actions risk creating the impression that the state is “spying on political opponents”.
  • And a court in London threw out a data-privacy case that Donald Trump brought against Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent whose eponymous “dossier” of unsubstantiated claims about Trump and Russia made their way into the US press as Trump took office in 2017. The case in the UK had been considered a more favorable legal avenue for Trump than a case against Steele that was thrown out in Florida in 2022, but the court ruled that Trump had no “reasonable grounds” for his claim.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Asa Hutchinson ended his campaign. He dropped out shortly after the Iowa caucuses.

Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.