Iowa and New Hampshire highlight the crisis of local news — and its national importance

Iowa and New Hampshire highlight the crisis of local news — and its national importance
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Iowa and New Hampshire are known for the charm of their retail politics — town halls, handshakes and hash browns. They are also the home of retail media — very local newspapers, TV and radio stations. But these days, small-town news is in big financial trouble, profoundly reshaping how the electorate in these key states now size-up candidates.

That’s important because what those early-contest voters do will put an unmistakable filter on the way the rest of us view the 2020 campaign.

The digital revolution has upended all media, but especially local outlets. Newspaper subscriptions are down, and readers are reluctant to pay for online news. Internet ads are less effective, so publishers can’t charge as much for them. In broadcasting, viewers and listeners have endless choices, eating away at audiences and revenue. 

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The result: layoffs and consolidation that make hometown news less effective and less valuable — which then causes more people to turn away from them in an ugly spiral.

A publisher called CNHI owns several small dailies and weeklies in both Iowa and New Hampshire, along with dozens of others across the country. After triming back and reorganizing its newsrooms in attempts to improve the bottom line, it was spun off from its parent company last year and is looking for someone to buy all those publications. That won’t be easy.

Iowa’s leading newspaper, the Des Moines Register, has suffered through several rounds of layoffs. A few months ago, the paper and the entire Gannett chain was sold off to Gatehouse Media, which anticipates $300 million in “savings” through merger synergies. The Register has just endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) ahead of the caucus, but it is unclear how influential the paper remains with voters.

In New Hampshire, the Manchester Union Leader for decades called political shots in the state. Its conservative editorial pages could make or break a Republican candidate. But as the paper’s circulation and staff have shrunk, so has its influence. In 2015, the Union Leader ran a robust critique of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE, calling him a “crude blowhard” in a front-page editorial that insisted New Hampshire Republican voters would stop his campaign in its tracks. Trump won the state’s GOP primary by an impressive margin.

Broadcasting has confronted a similar fate. Two leading Iowa television stations, in Des Moines and Davenport, have changed ownership in the last year. An upstart local New Hampshire TV news operation, NH1, closed down in 2017, putting 35 journalists out of work.

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This local media meltdown affects political reporting beyond its borders. Each presidential election year, networks, cable channels and major newspapers invade Iowa and New Hampshire. They often rely on experienced hometown journalists for advice and context. But many of those old hands are out of work, potentially robbing national stories — and voters around the country — of important background and analysis in these early, often decisive contests.

Public radio has filled some of the void, expanding local political programming, but faces its own financial challenges.

That means New Hampshire and Iowa voters — like too many of us — must increasingly rely on partisan all-news cable channels and that Pandora’s box of dark information arts, social media. This political season will see candidates spending record amounts on digital advertising, by some estimates outstripping cable and radio.

That places their legitimate commercial posts alongside dubious messages of uncertain origin, which induce voter confusion. Study after study confirms the internet is overwhelmed by robot-like computer programs that spread shrewdly disguised propaganda and disinformation.

And, while all that’s going on, 1,300 American small towns and communities have totally lost news coverage.

This grim statistic doesn’t bode well for how Campaign 2020 will unfold. The upcoming contests in Iowa and New Hampshire will be our first peek into what kind of informed electorate we can expect between now and November.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.