One of the most important trends in American politics and media is the concentrated attention that national politics gets from voters and journalists. In book’s like The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized by Daniel J. Hopkins, there is overwhelming evidence that American voters are increasingly choosing their votes based exclusively on national issues, rather than local ones.
That trend leads to vignettes like this section of a recent profile of J.D. Vance in The Washington Post Magazine by Simon van Zuylen-Wood at a campaign stop in Ohio:
One thing that struck me as I checked out Vance’s campaign events was how rarely voters wanted to talk about topics of local relevance. … Yet nobody in the room — or any other event I went to — asked about drug addiction. It’s not that voters didn’t grill Vance. They just preferred to ask about his past anti-Trumpism, or his relationship with Thiel, or any number of more unexpected national concerns, such as term limits.
There are a myriad of causes for this “nationalization,” the largest of which is shifting media coverage. As local news has dried up and so-called “news deserts” have become widespread, the only sources for political and civic news is often national-focused publications or broadcasts.
While causality is often assumed here, I find it quite complicated. It’s assumed that because local news has disappeared, voters have migrated to national voices and that’s influencing their vote and behavior. The opposite though could be true: voters have lost interest in local issues, stopped reading and watching local media, and therefore local media has lost its audience and therefore profits over time?
For instance, take this profile piece in The Atlantic by Scott Nover about Bklyner, a local-news startup founded by Liena Zagare. Brooklyn is a massive borough of 2.6 million people, and major national papers like The New York Times barely cover the region anymore as they have transferred more resources to national issues. Yet, despite prodigious and concentrated local reporting, readers did not show up, and the startup ended up winding down in its then form.
Where’s the gap? It’s the very definition of “local.”
Nover’s narrative is built around a Bklyner investigation of an assisted-living facility near Coney Island called the Park Manor. It’s classic local journalism: here’s an atrocity happening to elderly citizens, right in your neighborhood. Yet, as a Brooklynite myself, it feels impossibly distant: Coney Island is an hour away, I don’t know people there, I don’t have older relatives who live in the borough. While the tragedy there is certainly real, it feels equivalent to the thousands of tragedies transpiring all around the world.
Indeed, what’s local to me isn’t necessarily geographically limited. Local is the people I went to school with, the places I have lived and the networks formed there, the industry I work in, etc. That’s where my social life is based, and therefore, what I care about from a news perspective. Recent news about the passing of certain VCs in the industry hit me hard, because that’s the industry I work in and I know the people and firms involved. I’m frankly never going to visit the Park Manor.
Brooklyn is a unified political region, but it’s a diverse patchwork of neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, languages, and histories. The meaning of “local” is going to be vastly different for a Black resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, an Orthodox Jew living in South Williamsburg, a Chinese immigrant living in Sunset Park and a Russian emigré living in Brighton Beach. What news is going to be equally interesting to all these groups?
Indeed, that’s one reason for the nationalization of news: it’s the one thing that most everyone can agree and disagree on. In other words, it has high engagement.
If we were to divide news coverage up into local, state, national and international segments, American attention is placed probably 90% at national, and 8% local/state, and maybe 2% international. In fact, the only greater shock than the lack of interest in local news is the complete lack of interest in coverage of international news as well.
That’s the reality of news readership based on traffic. If you actually ask Americans what they are interested in, study after study has shown that American news readers have high interest in foreign affairs and hard news and their number one interest is local news. The disconnect is obvious: people want to be perceived (and even might believe that they are) “intellectual” about news. Yet their clicks run immediately to the sensational and entertaining over the latest dispatch from Kazakhstan. Novak Djokovic is the biggest foreign policy news story this past week.
Anita Zielina posted a good overview of these challenges on Nieman Lab, with special regard to the challenges of U.S. newsrooms offering broader perspectives on global news.
But I have learned one thing in my time here: The amount of U.S. centrism and exceptionalism, even amongst my mostly liberal and highly educated media peeps here, is stunning. With all the talk of globalization, the American perspective and way of doing things are still at the core of everything. The surprising thing is that every immigrant or expat will tell you that they agree with this sentiment in a heartbeat while Americans often aren’t aware of their bias.
I agree with this — and I particularly like the term centrism. We like to be the hero in our own stories, the propulsive force of the narrative. Changes in global power mean that the U.S. is increasingly not the dominant actor in many events. We should be reorganizing our attention in a way that reflects reality. We need more attention paid to urban infrastructure at the same time that we should pay more attention to how Chinese influence is warping UN agencies. That’s where the power of the future lies.
Yet, that’s not the trend we see in America, where the latest outrage on Capitol Hill ricochets around the world thousands of times per minute. What we need is to rejuvenate local news reporting by connecting diverse local communities over shared concerns while also injecting more global knowledge into the stream. A denationalization of news is in order, if only anyone can take a break from the drama to read about sewer systems.