Fewer following the news, to democracy’s peril | The Free Press Initiative

The number of people that followed news “all or more of the time” fell from 51% to 38% since 2016.

Apologies for adding to the list of things to be scared of this Halloween season.

But I’m spooked by a new report that found fewer and fewer Americans are paying attention to the news. Especially with elections just around the corner.

Only four in 10 are closely following what’s happening in their communities and the world nowadays, according to the survey released last week by Pew Research Center.

In 2016, 51% of U.S. adults followed the news “all or most of the time.” That fell to 38% in 2022, Pew found.

The number of Americans who hardly ever follow the news has nearly doubled since 2016, from 5% to 9%.

Pew noted that this comes amid changes in news consumption habits, declining trust in the media and high levels of news fatigue.

I fear that we’re becoming a land of digital lotus eaters, scrolling and streaming our days away, increasingly unaware of what’s happening beyond our screens.

This follows a two-decade decline in local news coverage that’s resulting in civic illiteracy and disengagement and eroding democracy.

It also highlights the potential death spiral for local newspapers, and why the federal government needs to intervene and help save what’s left of the industry before it’s too late.

The findings also drive home that it’s critical for the industry to address declining trust in its work, and for students to learn why it’s important to be an informed citizen.

Fewer Americans following the news is “a problem on multiple levels,” said Jennifer Lawless, a politics and public policy professor at the University of Virginia.

“We’ve already seen downward trends when it comes to people’s interest in politics and the extent to which they have the kind of knowledge required to hold elected officials accountable,” she said. “We also know that at the local level, when people stop following what’s going on, voter turnout declines, so these trends bode pretty poorly for any sort of thriving democracy, whether you’re talking about participation or knowledge or interest.”

Pew’s research also points to the conundrum for local newspapers.

As advertising shifted to a handful of dominant tech companies, news outlets cut staff to stay afloat. Through cutbacks, closures and consolidation, newspaper employment fell 70% since 2005, according to research by Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Small and large outlets are affected. The largest 25 U.S. papers saw their combined circulation fall 14% in the first quarter of 2023, according to trade publication Press Gazette. It also reported that the Top 10 news websites globally all saw year over year declines in visits in September.

Lately cost and labor pressures are pushing dailies to reduce the number of days they print and increasingly use postal delivery, which is slower and breaks the daily news habit.

Couple that with Wall Street types acquiring and debt-burdening the country’s largest newspaper chains, resulting in wafer-thin “ghost” newspapers, and readership declines were inevitable.

“When you don’t have a vibrant local news community it becomes really difficult to remind people that it is their civic responsibility to consume the news, so the supply and demand are definitely linked,” Lawless said.

That’s why other democracies are pursuing ways to sustain their news industries, such as payroll tax credits and policies enabling outlets to negotiate better deals with dominant tech platforms. Congress has similar proposals in hand but has yet to act.

Meanwhile fewer people are following news, meaning more Americans are uninformed.

“I think there are myriad factors behind these numbers — information overload, a trust deficit and fatigue. But I worry that we may have entered a doom loop,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and local news chair at Medill.

“There are fewer local news organizations and fewer journalists, so there’s less original, relevant reporting being produced for the public,” he said via email.

Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press.