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© Frank


A Vicious Loop

by Josh McCrain
June 23, 2021

This interview with Josh McCrain, assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, was conducted and condensed by franknews. 

frank | We want to talk about the nationalization of news and politics – which came first?

Josh | This is something that academics have thought a lot about. The idea that politics have become more nationalized is well studied and well established.

What this means is that when we are looking at races on a local and state level, there is an element of the national political climate applied to the race. So, for example, we start asking state elected officials or state legislators questions about their views on who is on the Supreme Court.

This has been something that's been going on for a while. The conventional wisdom is it started after the Reagan years in the nineties — Newt Gingrich catalyzed a lot of that — and then it really picked up into the two-thousands. 

It is hard to figure out if the nationalization of local news is a product of what people want out of their news broadcast or if it is a product of local news producers figuring out that it's cheaper to centralize and produce national news instead of doing costly local investigative reporting. It's not really possible to separate what's causing what here because they are occurring at the same time. 

You can imagine that the nationalization of politics is feeding into the local news nationalization, and then people become more attuned to national politics. They care less about local news, which drives local news producers to produce less local content.

It is a vicious loop that is a death spiral for a lot of local news outlets.

Obviously one of the large complaints is readership is down, viewership is down. I think it's low-hanging fruit to have bigger, more nationalized conversations, but maybe that is also a reflection that people don't really care. 

This is something that I personally am fascinated by. It is an open question as to whether or not there even is an audience for local news anymore. I think the answer is that there is an audience, but it is not clear that people want to pay money for local news. 

Newspapers were sort of propped up by advertising money for years. They were never really sustaining themselves off of subscribers, so when the advertising money shifted to the internet, there was no viable business model for the papers. 

There have to be other ways we can conceptualize local news, where it is not necessarily a money-making enterprise.

I try that pitch to investors all the time and they're like, huh?

One idea is to turn things into a non-profit so that there is no profit-making incentive. Even if it is a nonprofit, it still has to make money to sustain itself. I don’t think that is the solution. I don’t think there is enough money for these newspapers to sustain themselves. To make it a sustainable business model, you have to have investment by people who see the paper as a public good not a business. Realistically we need government support or philanthropic support.

These billionaires could support local news for decades across these news deserts. 

The internet, I think, has changed people's idea of community too. Somebody said to me, you know, there's a difference between people who identify their community as bound by geography and people, probably like you and I, who have friends all over, broadened by our work, and the internet, and the ability to travel. 

I think that is an interesting point. There is a vacuum created when local outlets go away. People turn to Nextdoor or neighborhood Facebook groups or whatever. That's not news. I used to live in Midtown Atlanta and the Nextdoor was not a good representation of the reality of living in Atlanta. That is a super pernicious problem; local news disappears, people still want to get updates, so now they get it without the context or investigation by reporters. Instead, they get the potentially fear-mongering and racist version that comes from whoever is willing to post stuff on social media outlets.

Right. Could you talk about Sinclair? 

Sure. Sinclair is a major owner of television news stations across the country. They own a lot of local news stations. They are what we call conglomerate owners. Nexstar is a big one. Tribune is a big one. But Sinclair is an interesting case because of two things. One is they started expanding like crazy. They realized an opportunity to just buy up a bunch of local stations. They weren’t necessarily strategic -- they bought what was available, cheap, and on sale. They took advantage of rule changes under Trump that made it easier for the conglomerates to buy stations across the country. They are not the only group to take advantage of those rules -- we saw a lot of mergers and consolidation of media ownership in the local television market. 

But, the other thing interesting about Sinclair is they're unabashedly conservative. They are big time Republican donors with very straightforward Republican viewpoints. They hired commentators who had positions in the Trump administration. They are a Republican-owned company and they don't really try to hide that. So what has been really interesting about their expansion is the degree to which they inject their politics into the content of their broadcasts. 

What were some of the rules that they took advantage of? 

There are a few. One is called the home studio rule, which says that if you are going to have a broadcast station in a media market, then you have to have a physical television station in that market. The Trump administration got rid of that rule. Two things happen because of this. One is that it makes it a lot cheaper for an ownership group that owns stations all across the country to expand, and it lessens the ties to the community and the place where they own the station. 

What effect does that have on national politics? 

Gregory Martin and I wrote a paper a few years ago called Local News National Politics. We studied the effect of Sinclair acquisition on the content of the stations that it buys.

The question we started with is: When Sinclair buys a station, do they change the kind of content of that station? This is actually a really interesting question because it's sort of hard to get at. You don't want to compare a station that was bought by Sinclair in Iowa or Wyoming to one that was bought by Sinclair in Washington, DC. Those are just fundamentally different media markets. 

So what Greg and I were able to do is we were able to compare the content of stations in the same media market, where the only difference is whether a station is bought by Sinclair or not.  We collected seven and a half million transcripts broadcast from across the country for a seven-month period from every station in the country. And we do some machine learning stuff to get the content of the transcripts. 

What we find is that when Sinclair buys the station, the station spends less time on local politics and more time on national politics relative to the other stations in the same media market. Then we look at the content of the media coverage. 

This is a pretty common thing to do in media research  — looking at the slant of the content. 

What we find is that also the political content of Sinclair broadcasts became more conservative relative to the stations in the same media market. 

This is interesting because if you take a very conservative, very red-leaning area, with a station bought by Sinclair, that station still becomes more conservative, even with a very high baseline conversative market. We also find that they become more like Fox News in the way that they talk about politics, we actually scale it to Fox News’ content.

If you ask Sinclair what that means, they would say, “Well, we think that there is a latent demand for this kind of content in these areas. We bought the stations in these areas and we changed the content because this is what the consumers want.”

That's a possibility for sure. If Sinclair's explanation for why they did this is correct, we would see viewership increase in the stations that they bought.

However, we find no increase in viewership. If anything, we find a drop in viewership. Sinclar is losing viewers after they make these changes to their content.

And this is important for their business model. So what is their business model if they're willing to make changes to the content of the station and lose viewers and lose eyeballs? There are a couple of options here. One is that since Sinclair has a major conglomerate owner, it's simply cheaper for them to nationalize the content, produce it, centrally, send it out to their affiliates, cut the costs of their affiliates, and reduce reporters. The economy of scale makes a lot of sense there, and that's not something that would be unique to Sinclair necessarily. However, how do you explain the political change of the slant? 

Another explanation for their business model is that they're willing to lose some money and some viewers in exchange for the ability to convince people of their political views. They are willing to substitute some of the money they lost for the ability to sway people politically through this new conservative content. That is an option.  We don't necessarily find that that's true, but that's certainly a compatible explanation with what we observe in Sinclair's business model. 

We're actually working on another paper that's almost ready to be public on the fact that all of these media groups have consolidated. Instead of having lots of disparate or smaller regional groups, you now have five national media groups given these business model incentives. And if that is the case, there is just going to be less local news in areas where a station is bought by a major owner. The really important normative problem with the decrease in local news is that voters do not know what is going on in state and local politics. 

We know that reporting is an accountability mechanism for elected officials; it makes them behave better. And if these sources are going away, what happens? What Greg and I are finding is that the competitiveness of local and state elections decreases, they become less competitive when stations in that area are bought by these major owners because voters don't know who the people are in government. If you don't know who the people are, you just vote for the incumbents or you don't vote. Elections are becoming less competitive, and that's sort of the downstream implications of what we found with Sinclair. But, this is broader than Sinclair because it has nothing to do with a political slant. This is just about these economic incentives, vis-a-vis national versus local politics and the centralization of the news that you then distributed to your affiliates.

The first question about my business when fundraising, for this small alt news outlet – was always, “what is your exit strategy”? New platforms will always be digital first because that's just the landscape – so the influence of tech and how they view capital is connected. It’s anecdotal, but I’m curious if you have any opinions on that?

Yeah, I mean, these venture capitalists are willing to buy these failing media companies or newspaper groups for cheap to try to turn it around after some brutal restructuring. I mean, that has nothing to do with the news business. That's just them trying to make money in these venture capital opportunities. The problem is that it is just decimating the economy for reporters. Reporters are pushed out of local news in massive numbers. I have a friend who's a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He's been there for a few decades.

He used to have two beats, now he has nine.

If you have nine beats, you can’t do any of them well. That is part of the problem. There's a really cool paper by this political scientist at Texas A&M Erik Peterson that looks at what happens to newspapers when their resources are cut. And basically, he finds exactly that. Reporters take on a ton more beats without making more money. 

How do local candidates find ways to be discovered and supported?

That's a really good question. I would suggest that it was always hard for them. Something we know about local elections is that these are what we call “low salience elections.” The only people who participate are hyper-partisan, high information people because you have to know a lot to vote in local elections. And now the problem is exacerbated because people have nowhere to go to figure out who these people are. 

There's actually an interesting solution to this. Washington, Oregon, and some counties in California started sending mail ballots and where to get information on each of the candidates. That's one way you can get people to have the opportunity to pull them up. 

There’s also the phenomenon of local voting guides on Instagram. Like a DSA infographic that gets circulated that is often endorsement without explanation.

There's a huge research area in political science on the effects of an election where you don’t have any major candidates on the ballot. This happens in a lot of states on off-year elections. And nonpartisan elections are actually the worst for this; in partisan elections, people have some sort of sense as to who they may agree with. Nonpartisan elections are a mess. Many judicial elections are nonpartisan. How do voters know how to vote on a judge? So there's a lot of cool research that shows the incentives for the judges running are terrible because they want to show that they like to align with a party, but how do you do that except by making opinions in certain directions?

Judicial elections – maybe that’s our next month.

Oh absolutely. Tom Clark at Emory University and his co-authors have a paper that looks at the effect of death penalty cases. And what's super messed up about that is you can literally put a number on how many people have died because of judges’ electoral incentives.

Wow. You touched on this briefly but I want to go back to what version of news you see moving forward. Do you have an opinion on government involvement in local news?

It is a great question and not obvious. I've talked to a number of journalists that have gotten emails from a number of journalists in both print and TV about this stuff. One journalist emailed me and was like, you know, we really do like good reporting, but we also want people to watch our stuff. If what people care about is not local TV, then what do we do?

I mean, I don't have a good solution to that. It is tricky.  I think in TV, there is still an audience for local news, but it is hard because now people have different media diets. People now don't have cable subscriptions or any live TV subscriptions. So how do you watch this? I don’t know. There is not a good solution. 

For print media, although the situation is more dire from an industry perspective, I think it's a little bit more solvable because it's not as expensive. It’s not as much overhead. It comes down to accepting the fact that it's not going to make money and finding a way to support it from a public good perspective. And, by the way, this is something that happens regularly. 

We have some public broadcasting here. Other countries have public media that works right. This works because people are invested in it as a public good.

We need to stop talking about this as a business and start talking about this as a utility. 

Research shows that when local newspapers go away, a city's credit rating gets worse because politicians behave worse. If we can start communicating things like that, then I think it becomes a little bit easier of a problem to at least talk about. We need to reframe what the discussion is.

The one thing that we can do, from a regulatory perspective, is change the rules. The FCC has changed rules many times. We make it less viable for these major conglomerate owners to centralize the production of news. That is a policy choice that we made that can be undone. There are regulatory steps in the right direction that can be taken. 

There’s a lot of talk about the Fairness Doctrine.

Yeah. But that doesn't do anything. It affects over-the-air broadcasts, which is not what people are concerned about. The Fairness Doctrine is not going to change Fox. That is a private entity; they are not governed by the Fairness Doctrine. 

Right. Well, thank you so much for your time.