Do Good Newspapers Make Good Congressmen?

Press coverage often does hold politicians accountable — on the local level at least.

That’s according to a new working paper by David Stromberg and James M. Snyder Jr.

They found that congressmen from districts with newspapers that aggressively cover local politics tend to work harder to represent the interests of their constituents.

Such congressmen are more likely to break with their parties, more likely to bring home pork-barrel projects, and more likely to participate actively in committee hearings than congressmen from districts without a strong local press.

In the study, the accountability effect is strongest where the boundaries of one media market most closely match the borders of a single congressional district. In big cities, where one newspaper might cover several districts, or in rural areas, where there may be no local paper coverage at all, press coverage of local congressional representatives “becomes more selective and superficial,” according to the authors.

In these districts, fewer voters know the name of their congressman, let alone how he or she votes in Congress. That reduces the incentive for a congressman to be responsive to the needs of his or her district.

The study also found that television news coverage had almost no effect on voter knowledge of their congressmen, and it found mixed results with internet news coverage.

With the number of local newspapers declining across America, and the dwindling circulation of those that remain, will Congress become less responsive?

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  1. ALS NYC says:

    The demise of the newspaper is a serious business. I often wonder if my subscription costs for the NYTimes which I usually read online anyway shouldn’t be considered a charitable donation or an education expense?!

    Seriously, this is why the editorials are so important.

    I hope that these opinions blogs sponsored by the Times, which are fantastic, might help “educate” those in charge of the editorials (so that the editorials more often reflect my point of view!).

    Reading which is emphasized so much is taught so often with limited attention to newspapers. What a pity!

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  2. scott says:

    How can Congress become less responsive?

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  3. Performify says:

    This just in: “accountability works.” Shocking.

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  4. jblog says:

    Interesting analysis at a time when local newspapers are cutting news staffs and closing statehouse bureaus.

    The type of dedicated, focused reporting described here is disappearing, simply because there are fewer and fewer people to do it.

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  5. jimi says:

    “more likely to bring home pork-barrel projects” does not a good Congressman make.

    They are passing laws for the entire country, not just their constituents.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    i really like that last sentence- one of the most dangerous aspects of our shoddy media is the disconnect between citizens and government, making it ever more likely that government will be hijacked by industry lobbyists

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  7. Mike B says:

    Hopefully the growth in the new types of web-based reporting will lead to increased amounts of community involvement and accountability for elected officials. Collaborative sites using wiki or blog technology can become in effect a virtual community center where the latest scuttlebutt in local, state and federal government can be disseminated and discussed.

    My town in suburban Philadelphia is served by both the Philadelphia market papers, a regional paper and a local paper. The original “old media” local papers have long since gone belly up, but today there is still a community centered non-profit paper published by local volunteers dealing with local “event” type issues as well as local politics. As the web-based demographics begin to dominate I am sure this sort of thing will move online.

    While the “last mile” will certainly be covered, the real issue is who will handle the first mile, going to DC (or the state capitol) and going actual reporting beyond what is freely available on the national wires, blogs and C-SPAN. The web has been great for helping niche interest groups aggregate and spread information. The question remains, are there people who naturally haunt the halls of government on their own time to dig up dirt and spread the word to folks back home or will this require a real reporter with a salary?

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  8. Kevin H says:

    I think this makes a lot of sense. People are always complaining that the Politicians don’t do a good enough job. They seem to forget that we live in a representative democracy. Politicians simply do what they think will get them elected. If we have an uninformed populace who aren’t willing to donate to political campaigns, we will have inept politicians who take money from special interests and only act when they think they can spin the idea to coincide with the uninformed opinion of the masses.

    The death of local news papers probably does lead to more poorly informed voters about local issues. However, initiatives such as the Knight News Challenge that Stephen posted about very recently have a shot of turning the tide in the other direction.

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