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Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?

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Having a paper around, Shaker adds, "is a public good we all benefit from, even if we don't read it, because it means journalists are pounding the pavement, holding officials accountable, activating the community."

The death of The Cincinnati Post, the final edition of which appeared on New Year's Eve in 2007, created a similar effect, according to another scholarly paper, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Media Economics. When the Post and its sister edition, The Kentucky Post, closed, political participation dropped across the northern Kentucky suburbs. Though the area's other daily newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, remained in business, the Post had provided 80 percent of the papers' combined coverage of that suburban zone.

"What we found was that, relatively speaking, fewer people ran for municipal office, incumbents became more likely to be reelected, candidates spent less on their campaigns, and voter turnout fell in the suburbs that got the most coverage from the Post," says economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, the study's lead author and a former newspaperman.

Along with his coauthor, Miguel Garrido, he concluded in the paper: "If voter turnout, a broad choice of candidates, and accountability for incumbents are important for democracy, we side with those who lament newspapers' decline."

No watchdogs in "news deserts"

But all newspapers aren't created equal when it comes to boosting civic-minded behavior. In the mid-1990s, The New York Times began a campaign to grow in local markets nationwide. Two researchers have made an extensive study of that expansion's impact on the Times's college-educated target audience.

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