Did Local News Coverage Lead to Greater Voter Engagement in Burlington and Bedford?

~ Submitted by Doug Muder

Northeastern University Professor Dan Kennedy has good news and bad news for The Bedford Citizen.

Writing on the School of Journalism’s “Storybench” blog on October 13, Kennedy raised the question: Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement?

He studied the question by comparing two measures of voter engagement (number of candidates for local offices and voter turnout in municipal elections) in two towns (Bedford and our neighbor Burlington) over a 20-year period.

The Citizen must confess to feeling flattered by his choice of towns: Bedford, largely because of The Citizen, serves as an example of “better news coverage”. Kennedy describes us as “a robust nonprofit website that provides comprehensive coverage of the community”.  By comparison, Burlington “lacks a local news source with the reach and comprehensiveness of The Bedford Citizen”.

Unfortunately for The Citizen’s collective ego, however, Kennedy’s two measures of engagement showed little evidence of the effect he was looking for. Burlington, which has roughly double Bedford’s population, had 22% more candidates. “Nor do we see any increase in the number of candidates running in Bedford starting in 2011, when The Bedford Citizen was founded.” Voter turnout in local elections jumped around from year to year in both towns, but was generally higher in Burlington, though the gap has been smaller since 2011.

Kennedy admits that “The outcome was not what I expected.” But he notes that “It may turn out, though, that the effect [of local news coverage] is too subtle to be measured when the sample size is small and when there is background noise in the form of differences in the communities being measured.” (Burlington has a 142-member representative town meeting, while Bedford practices more direct democracy through a town meeting open to all registered voters.)

But despite the fact that Kennedy’s study does not offer us any quantitative bragging rights, we at The Citizen continue to trust that our efforts improve the quality of political participation in our hometown.

Editor’s Note: Professor Kennedy, a panelist on WGBH’s late lamented Beat the Press, writes about local journalism on his blog ‘Media Nation’, and in his book, ‘The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age’.

Doug Muder is a member of The Bedford Citizen’s board. Muder represents the Strategic Planning Committee on its Content subcommittee at twice-weekly Editorial Committee meetings.  He writes about national issues in his newsletter ‘The Weekly Sift’.


Keep our journalism strong! Support The Citizen Journalism Fund today. Contact The Bedford Citizen: editor@thebedfordcitizen.org or 781-325-8606

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Alan MacRobert
Alan MacRobert
9 months ago

> “Nor do we see any increase in the number of
> candidates running in Bedford starting in 2011,
> when The Bedford Citizen was founded.”

A flaw I see here is his assuming that decent local news coverage only started when the Citizen was founded. The Bedford Minute-man is not mentioned. For many decades, the Minute-man was a fine, seriously engaged community newspaper when it was locally owned and run. The Minuteman’s pathetic throttle-down under distant corporate ownership was what created the need for, and gave rise to, the Citizen. And the Citizen didn’t become what it is today instantly.

So the actual news picture — as it affects Bedford’s deeply ingrained, generations-long culture of civic involvement — is decades of good local news-and-affairs reporting, followed by a decline, followed by a recovery.

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