Does a newspaper’s owner affect its coverage of local elections?

Now that the dust has settled from last month’s elections, let’s consider how newspaper ownership shapes election coverage. Last year, Knight Chair Penelope Muse Abernathy and her research team looked at five newspapers in eastern North Carolina to measure how their election coverage was affected by their owners, if at all. Two of the newspapers were independently owned, two were owned by Civitas Media (an investment entity that has sold off all of its North Carolina papers), and one newly acquired by GateHouse (an investment entity that is the largest owner of newspapers in the U.S.)

Abernathy’s team explored how the coverage differed between these newspapers, assessing which papers reduced their reporting on local elections and relied on wire services for national election coverage. They tracked papers for 40 days leading up to the November 2016 election and found that the two independently owned newspapers tended to cover local races in greater detail than their investment-owned peers, dedicating more space to staff-written articles about state and local elections. They also published candidate coverage earlier than the other papers, helping prepare early voters.

Staff-written articles covering 2016 national election

The investment-owned newspapers belonging to Civitas Media, the Robesonian and the Laurinburg Exchange, tended to rely on national wire services which covered the national election significantly.

 

Read the excerpt below and read the full report “Thwarting the Emergence of News Deserts” here.

2016 Elections: How Six Papers Covered State and Local Races
The November 2016 election followed one of
 the most contentious campaign seasons in recent memory. As a “purple” swing state,
 North Carolina was considered pivotal in the presidential election. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump visited the state over 10 times. The race for governor was one of the closest in the nation, with only 10,000 votes separating Roy Cooper and incumbent Pat McCrory after 4.7 million ballots had been cast.

As most of the national and regional press was closely following the executive races, North Carolinians were also going to the polls to choose hundreds of state legislators, county commissioners, county school board members, judges, and other elected officials. While voters could find an endless stream of information on the presidential election, small community papers are often the only source they have for substantive, in-depth coverage of local elections.

With the stakes so high, this election offered a useful test of how different types of newspaper ownership affect campaign coverage. A 2016 report by the Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media documented the rise of a new type of newspaper owner – private equity funds, hedge funds and other newly formed investment partnerships – that had purchased hundreds of papers over the past decade. By 2016, these investment entities owned more than 1,000 papers nationwide. This includes 40 of North Carolina’s 185 papers.

This follow-up report uses case studies to investigate how these ownership changes affected coverage of local elections. The analysis, which reviewed 40 days of reporting leading up to the November 2016 election, covers five newspapers in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina:

  • Two independent newspapers (The Pilot in Southern Pines and The News Reporter in Whiteville);
  • Two newspapers owned by Civitas Media, an investment company (The Robesonian in Lumberton and The Laurinburg Exchange);
  • One formerly independent newspaper that was acquired by the investment-owned New Media/GateHouse in August 2016 (The Fayetteville Observer).

As readership, revenues, and newsroom staffs have declined across the industry, many newspapers have relied primarily on cost-cutting to meet profit expectations. As a result, newsroom and editorial staffs declined by 40 percent between 2005 and 2006. This has left many smaller newspapers struggling to be aggressive watchdogs in their communities, some of the country’s most vulnerable. In turn, the larger regional newspapers have also pulled back from outlying rural communities, further diminishing the oversight of major issues that could affect entire regions.

At the same time, many independent, locally owned newspapers, which have also been suffering from declining revenue, have demonstrated their commitment to their communities. To varying degrees of success, these papers have sought ways to increase revenue while maintaining their traditional level of in-depth reporting and strong editorial voice.

Clear Trends Emerged From the Analysis:

  • The Fayetteville Observer confined its coverage to national races and local elections with jurisdiction over Cumberland County and did not cover local elections outside its home county in great depth.
  • The two independently owned newspapers, The Pilot and The News Reporter, tended to cover local races in greater detail than their investment-owned peers, dedicating more space to staff-written articles about state and local elections. They also published candidate coverage earlier than the other papers, helping prepare early voters.
  • The Robesonian and The Laurinburg Exchange both relied heavily on wire service reports, which included significant national coverage, to fill their pages.
  • Only one of the newspapers – The independently owned Pilot – endorsed candidates in local elections.
 
The Cape Fear Region
The Fayetteville Observer has traditionally sought to serve the entire 10-county Cape Fear region, which includes Columbus, Moore, Robeson and Scotland counties, home of The News Reporter, The Pilot, The Robesonian, and The Laurinburg Exchange, respectively. Much of this region is economically and socially vulnerable, suffering from high poverty rates, subpar public school education and poor health outcomes. Robeson and Scotland counties have the highest poverty rates in the state. Few schools in Columbus, Robeson, and Scotland counties scored higher than a “C” on their school report cards. Additionally, these three counties were among the least-healthy counties in the state in 2015, with high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Cumberland, Robeson, and Scotland are all majority-minority, which means they have more nonwhite residents than white residents. Only 11 percent of the nation’s counties fit into that category in 2013. In Robeson County, four out of every 10 people identify as American Indian.

These challenges and characteristics make the civic role of the community newspaper even more critical. Newspapers, which have long enjoyed strong profit margins, have traditionally worked to foster a well-informed electorate and to provide accountability for legislators. But growing financial hardships in the newspaper industry have depressed profits and coverage alike.

Many metro newspapers have been forced to focus their coverage closer to home at the expense of the outlying areas, and The Fayetteville Observer is no exception. Newsroom staff was already shrinking before its sale to New Media/Gatehouse in August. As a result, coverage of the Cape Fear region has shrunk.
Charles Broadwell, the former local owner and publisher of The Fayetteville Observer, said, “We never wanted to pull back too much on those folks, so we kept delivering The Observer, but at the same time with the recession, all the changes in our industry, we did have to cut staff. … Our journalistic numbers had to come down so we could stay profitable, and, unfortunately, that meant fewer boots on the ground. Our ability to get to some of those outlying counties, if you will, it was tough.”

Shortly after acquiring the paper, New Media/GateHouse offered companywide employee buyouts. The Fayetteville Observer declined to say how many staff members accepted the offer, saying only that it was a “small number of people in the newsroom.” Long-time prep sports writer Earl Vaughan Jr. was one of those reporters – he had been with the paper for 44 years and tweeted on September 8 that he had accepted a buyout offer. According to its website, the paper now has about 20 non-sports newsroom staff members.
Before the sale to New Media/Gatehouse, the Observer published stories about layoffs or major buy-outs. For example, an article from March 2015 announced a new round of layoffs and noted that the paper had eliminated about 130 jobs since 2007, including an unspecified number of newsroom employees – a 30 percent decline.

All of these cutbacks have diminished the paper’s abilities to cover outlying areas in the Cape Fear region. Most concerning are those counties that constitute some of the state’s poorest areas, already contending with weakened newspapers of their own. As Broadwell notes, “What worries you is that we have fewer boots on the ground … smaller, local papers around us, many of them have been hammered even harder than The Observer has.”

Similarly, The News & Observer in Raleigh, the state capital, has been forced to reduce its coverage of areas outside its home territory. Historically, the paper has been instrumental in coverage of statewide policy issues, including its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the rising environmental costs of hog farms in eastern North Carolina in the mid-1990s. However, since 2000, the total newspaper staff has declined from about 1,200 full-time-equivalent employees to just 350 in April of 2016, greatly constricting the paper’s ability to cover eastern North Carolina.

Dan Barkin, managing editor of The News & Observer, noted that the paper has not employed a full-time reporter in Eastern North Carolina in the past decade and that the paper’s “focus on Eastern NC shifted years ago to a focus on the Triangle – particularly Wake County.”

Barkin also cited limited resources at smaller local newspapers as a threat to investigative journalism. Local papers “try to do a good job within their resource constraints,” he said, “but there isn’t any of what I would call watchdog or accountability reporting. When this is absent, local government officials operate in a different environment than their counterparts in urban areas, and so – without anyone really looking over their shoulders, looking at records, available to follow up tips – they can fall into bad habits.”

 
The Value of Local Newspapers in Local Elections
The media’s influence on elections is a point of great contention among journalists, researchers, and policymakers. The rise of “fake news” and alternative news sources that have been able to quickly find national audiences through social media have many worried that the waning influence of newspapers will decline even more rapidly.

Newspapers have three main levers for informing their electorate and shaping the debate: (1) regular coverage of candidates, (2) question-and-answer (Q&A) features that provide a forum for candidates to offer their positions on issues, and (3) editorial endorsements to help voters in their candidate selection, especially in elections where voters have little information on specific policies, offices, or candidates (e.g. judges).

According to a recent Nielsen Scarborough study, despite changing readership habits, newspapers still reach 69 percent of the U.S. population each month. For community papers, political coverage of local elections is especially salient. A wealth of information is available to readers, from a number of sources, such as metro papers, on gubernatorial and other state races. However, little information is readily available to voters on local races. The local newspaper is usually the only one covering the election of officials like city council members, county commissioners, district judges, and state representatives. Metro newspapers, especially as newsroom cutbacks occur, have minimal capacity to cover candidates outside their central areas of readership. For example, The Fayetteville Observer limited its candidate Q&A’s to districts that were at least partly located in Cumberland County, and The News & Observer had minimal coverage of races outside its delivery area in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.

Only one of the newspapers in the analysis – The Pilot – published candidate endorsements, which follows a national trend of newspapers abandoning the practice of writing endorsements. This shift sometimes comes at the behest of their absentee parent companies. Halifax Media Group, for instance, which was acquired by New Media/GateHouse in 2014, had adopted a no-endorsement policy for all of its publications. When The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, was sold by Halifax to local owners in 2012, the paper quickly resumed writing editorials. Publisher Bruce Kyse wrote, “It seems incongruous to us that the one time a newspaper would not offer its opinion is when it comes to making the most important decision a community makes together — choosing elected leaders.”

The reasons for deciding not to publish endorsements may vary. A large chain may, for example, want to maintain independence or avoid alienating readers who disagree with the paper’s views. But shrinking resources may also be to blame. David Haynes, editorial page editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which no longer endorses candidates, told the Columbia Journalism Review that filling the information void at the local level would be difficult. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I can fix it with endorsement editorials. I don’t have staffing for the broad-brush editorials we once did.”

Endorsements require significant research and consideration. David Woronoff, part-owner and publisher of The Pilot, said that before endorsing, the editorial board meets with each of the candidates and solicits input from experts in the field. Similarly, Kyse said the Santa Rosa paper spent 45 minutes to an hour with each candidate before making an endorsement. Woronoff firmly believes that endorsements are an important way his paper can be a resource for its community, noting that the paper’s leadership and staff “believe, to our core, that we exist to serve our community. Too many media companies today have that reversed, and they think the community exists to provide them a living, and that has been the Wall Street corporate ownership of our newspapers.”

 
Early Voting & the Need for Early Information
As more voters go to the polls earlier, newspapers must adjust their coverage to accommodate their readers’ need for timely information (e.g. earlier endorsements). In the 2012 election, about a third of all U.S. votes were cast before Election Day, and the number of early voters more than doubled in North Carolina between 2004 and 2012. In some counties, as many as two out of three voters had already voted before Election Day 2016. However, many newspapers have been slow to react.

Early Voting turnout and Q&A publication date

When newspapers wait until late into the election season to publish Q&A’s with candidates, as they mostly did in our analysis, many voters go to the polls without the independent background research and analysis the paper offers. The Pilot is the only paper in the analysis that published all of its Q&A’s before the start of early voting. The News Reporter, the other independent newspaper, published the last of its Q&A’s on October 31, which was earlier than all three of the investment-owned newspapers. The Laurinburg Exchange, for example, published its final Q&A on election day, when two-thirds of the county’s votes had already been cast. Donnie Douglas, editor of The Robesonian, said, “Early voting has changed the whole thing. … We’ve always done it this way, and we haven’t adjusted yet to the early voting.”

The flooding that devastated much of eastern North Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Matthew made it difficult for three of the newspapers in this analysis to track campaigns and to provide detailed candidate Q&A’s in a timely manner. The storm hit the state on October 8, exactly one month before Election Day and only 12 days before the start of early voting. Lumberton was already suffering from mild flooding due to severe storms that had hit the area before Matthew’s arrival, and it took two weeks for the floodwaters to subside once the storm had passed. Areas of Fayetteville and Whiteville were also flooded by the storms, stretching their reporting staffs thin as they tried to cover both the disaster and the election simultaneously.

In response to a reader’s question that asked if The Fayetteville Observer could publish its election guide earlier, Alan Wooten, an editor, wrote, “for the most part, the Observer prints the voter guide near the beginning of early voting. This year, it was pushed back a week because of our responsibilities covering Hurricane Matthew.” Similarly, Les High of The News Reporter also attributed his paper’s late coverage, at least in part, to the flooding.

The importance of early voting in North Carolina was compounded by efforts to require voter identification and restrict early voting. In July, a federal appeals court struck down a state law that required photo identification in order to be eligible to vote and reduced the number of early voting days to 10 from 17, among other things. The court said the bill, “targets African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Even after the ruling, county boards of election, which were all controlled by Republicans, still sought, to limit early voting as much as possible during the 2016 election. The North Carolina Republican Party sent suggestions on how best to limit early voting. Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina Republican Party’s executive director, wrote in an email, “Republicans can and should make party line changes to early voting.” Suggestions in his email included limiting the number of polling sites, eliminating Sunday voting, and closing college campus voting sites. A GOP press release on November 6 found the decline in early voting among African-Americans, and the increase in white early voters, to be “encouraging.”

The Cape Fear region was at the center of this effort: Scotland and Columbus counties both kept early voting sites closed on Saturdays and Sundays while Moore County kept its precincts closed only on Sundays. Additionally, Moore and Cumberland counties were found in a lawsuit brought by the NAACP to be illegally purging names from the voter rolls. When covering the ruling, both The Pilot and The Fayetteville Observer relied on reports from nonstaff sources, The News & Observer and The Associated Press, respectively.

 
The Independents: The News Reporter and The Pilot
The two independently owned newspapers in our analysis demonstrated their commitment to their communities by covering local elections in great depth, publishing Q&A’s earlier and using their editorial voices to set the agenda.

The two newspapers are located in distinct communities. Columbus County, home of The News Reporter, has a significantly higher poverty rate, with one in four people living below the poverty line while Moore County, home of The Pilot, has a poverty rate in line with the U.S. average (15.5 percent). Columbus County is largely composed of farmland, factory sites, and swamps. Moore County, on the other hand, is filled with golf courses, horse stables, and retirement communities, in addition to its rural farming areas. The Pilot also has about twice as many newsroom staff members as The News Reporter.

Both papers, however, share an important characteristic: They have owners who live in their respective towns. As David Woronoff, the part-owner and publisher of The Pilot, noted, “Twenty years ago when the newspaper came out, there were 15 people lined up outside my door, either mad about something we had written, mad about something we hadn’t written, or happy about something we had done.” While he noted that community members might not have the same passion for the newspaper that they did two decades ago, his door remains open to readers.

Les High, who currently serves as The News Reporter’s editor, has emphasized the importance of maintaining its semi-weekly printing. He said that cutting production to one day per week “was drastic and would disrupt loyal reader habits. So, I only want to do that as a last resort.”

These quotes stand in stark contrast to comments from Michael Reed, CEO of New Media/GateHouse, after the company sold two newspapers in Nebraska: “[W]e did not see the Grand Island operation as a good strategic or geographic fit, and felt we could redeploy the capital more effectively elsewhere.” He goes on to say that the company never intended to hold on to the newspaper, “It was always our intention when we recently acquired several properties from Morris Communications to dispose of the Yankton [SD] operation.”

The Pilot and The News Reporter both publish two times a week – less frequently than the three investment-owned newspapers in this analysis, which publish five, six, and seven times a week. As a result, the independent papers rely on their own staff writers to fill their pages, not on wire services.

The News Reporter received the Pulitzer Prize’s coveted Public Service award in 1953 for its coverage of and editorials on Ku Klux Klan activities in Columbus County. The High family has been running the paper since Jim High took over in 1958 after the death of his father-in-law. Les High, Jim’s son, said they had the opportunity to sell the paper, but rejected “a nice offer we got to sell out to a chain in the 1980s. I think we made the right decision.”

The Pilot, which recently won awards from the National Newspaper Association for its editorials, published its editorial endorsements and Q&A’s before the start of early voting on October 20. Woronoff said the editorial staff interviewed each of the candidates and talked with experts in the field before making recommendations. It endorsed a total of 20 races, ranging from statewide offices like governor, down to local Board of Education members. The paper also wrote the longest election-related stories, on average, of any of the papers in the analysis.

When speaking about his paper’s campaign coverage, Woronoff said, “I feel like any subscriber to The Pilot, when they walk into the voting booth, they ought to know every candidate just by virtue of reading the newspaper, and I take it as an affront if we don’t uphold that bargain.”

The News Reporter wrote the next longest election-related stories and, despite being heavily affected by flooding, published its candidate Q&A’s before the other three papers in the analysis. However, nearly a third of voters in Columbus County had already cast their ballots by the time the final Q&A was published. Les High said that the paper “would have tried to have done that earlier, but due to the storm and some unexpected health emergencies,” it was unable to print the Q&A’s before early voting began.

Though the paper did not endorse any candidates, it wrote three editorials on the election. The first appeared on October 31 and called for civility during a tumultuous election. The second, published the day before the election, encouraged voters to exercise their civic right and duty. The third, printed two days after the election, wrote about the rural-urban divide in North Carolina that helped propel Trump to victory and called on leaders in Raleigh and Washington to listen to the needs of rural counties, like Columbus, to help foster equitable growth for all of America.

 
The Fayetteville Observer
Cumberland County is home to Fort Bragg, the world’s largest military base, which serves more than 50,000 active-duty soldiers and their families in addition to a large network of contractors and a significant population of military retirees. The base’s presence has bolstered the economy and created a diverse community. Given the importance of federal government policies, The Fayetteville Observer has robust coverage of national politics – it is the only one of the five papers that dedicated significant staff resources to covering federal elections.

Managing editor Matt Leclercq noted, “We look at world news a little differently than most other papers our size because of what’s happening around the world can directly affect our community.”

Until its sale to New Media/GateHouse, the Observer had been owned by the same family for four generations until this past summer. The family worked hard to find a way to keep the paper independent and profitable, but ultimately, the pressures mounted and Broadwell, the paper’s former owner and publisher, decided to sell. “You can imagine the decision to sell. I was a fourth-generation member of the family and the only one working there at the time. [It] was painful,” Broadwell said. “A consultant came in … and said, ‘Publishing a newspaper these days is not for the faint of heart.’”

It takes time for a new owner to fully implement its operational strategy, and New Media/GateHouse had only owned the Observer for a couple of months before the election. So, in many ways, The Fayetteville Observer covered the election as it had in recent years. It was the most prolific of the five newspapers in this analysis, publishing the most staff-written articles about the campaign. Given that it is the only paper that prints seven days a week and has more than double the staff of the next-largest newsroom, its ability to cover more is not surprising. The paper also had the most robust online resources for voters and provided a list of candidates in all contested races in the Cape Fear region. However, given the cutback in regional reporting that had occurred before the sale to New Media/GateHouse, the Observer only had significant detail on races in Cumberland County. Voters in Columbus, Moore, Robeson, and Scotland counties needed to rely on local newspapers for detailed information on their local races.

 
The Robesonian & The Laurinburg Exchange
Under ownership and management by the investment firm, Civitas, both the Robesonian and The Laurinburg Exchange in Robeson and Scotland Counties, have experienced several rounds of cost-cutting in recent years. Today, the two newspapers have thinly staffed newsrooms that rely heavily on wire service reports. The Robesonian has 4.5 full-time-equivalent nonsports newsroom staff members while The Laurinburg Exchange has just 2.5. Despite the small staffs, the Robesonian prints six days a week. The Exchange publishes five days a week.

The Robesonian published nearly five times as many wire service reports on election-related topics than it did staff-written articles, with most wire reports having a national focus. The Laurinburg Exchange also published more wire service reports on the election than staff-written pieces.

The Robesonian, like The Fayetteville Observer and The News Reporter, was heavily affected by the flooding that came in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Lumberton, the home of the paper, was flooded for weeks after the storm, and the paper’s offices were rendered unusable. According to the paper’s editor, Donnie Douglas, while the flooding made it difficult to cover Matthew’s wake, it had minimal impact on its coverage of local campaigns.

The staff has been steadily shrinking in recent years – it now has about a third of the 18 newsroom staff members it had in 1996 – and Douglas attributes its relatively shallow coverage of local races to this decline. “If you really want to dig deep, you’re not going to get it from us. You’re going to have to do that yourself,” he said. “I think it’s really a staffing thing. We’re in a perpetual position of trying to fill the paper.”

The Robesonian published few staff-written articles on the election until the week starting October 24. The Laurinburg Exchange, which is located in an area that escaped Matthew relatively unscathed, was able to start covering the campaigns earlier. However, neither paper published a candidate Q&A until 40 percent of voters in each county had already cast their votes.

The Laurinburg Exchange published a single unsigned editorial on the election on October 25, when the paper urged its readers to exercise their right to vote. Instead of focusing on important local elections, the Exchange referenced the state and federal elections, writing, “We hope voters will take the time to cast those ballots. It’s important to do so every time elections roll around, but this year, with the presidential and gubernatorial races and a hotly contested U.S. Senate race, that makes voting imperative.”

The Robesonian wrote three unsigned editorials on the election – the first praised Governor McCrory’s response to the flooding and wondered if it might help him defeat Roy Cooper in his re-election bid. The second editorial, published two days before the election, was titled, “Sorry choices heighten need to cast a ballot.” In an effort to encourage readers to vote, the editorial wrote about the shortcomings of both presidential candidates that made them unfit for the office. The final editorial, published the day after the election, was written before the outcome was known, but called for unity in the wake of the result.
Douglas said the paper has not historically endorsed candidates and has not done so during his time with the paper, which he joined in 1996.

 
Conclusion
Even before the sale, The Fayetteville Observer had been forced to cut back its reporting of the ten counties in the Cape Fear Region, and concentrate on covering issues related to Cumberland County and Ft. Bragg. This has put greater pressure on the local community newspapers in the region, which are also under financial strain, to cover local issues and elections. In this analysis, the two independently owned newspapers – the Pilot and the News Reporter – covered local races in greater detail than their investment-owned peers – the Robesonian and The Laurinburg Exchange. They not only dedicated more space to staff-written articles about state and local elections, but they also used the editorials to voice opinions on the race.