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Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?

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The effects of closing daily newspapers have been more formally studied by Lee Shaker, a communications professor at Portland State University in Oregon. Professor Shaker examined the death of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition. "They were deeply embedded in their communities, in terms of people waking up in the morning and reading them and also as clearinghouse institutions where reporters had spent their entire careers," Shaker says. "[The reporters] knew how things worked and could shed light on the truth." Both papers were approaching their 150th anniversaries when publishers pulled the plug in 2009.

From a research perspective, they couldn't have expired at a better time. Months earlier, the US Census Bureau had started collecting data to assess how deeply citizens were involved with their communities in big cities across the country. This set the stage for what social scientists call a "natural experiment."

Shaker examined the bureau's findings from before and after the closures of the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Even though Denver and Seattle were each left with one daily print paper – previously, both had been two-newspaper towns – the change was significant. Shaker saw a decline in certain public-minded behaviors, including boycotts, which outpaced other cities.

The data did not explain why. So, asks Shaker: "Did civic engagement decline because people stopped reading a newspaper? Or because you took a newspaper out of the community?" After all, newspapers play a dual role: keeping readers informed and acting as watchdogs.

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