Not that I want to talk politics (we’ve all heard enough), but November’s election surprise did give me pause. Polls aside, why most of the national media missed the scale of Donald Trump’s strength among voters might be explained by the long and ongoing decline of regional and small-city newspapers, which in their heyday might have noticed.
Media observers since Nov. 8 have made a great deal about the spread online of fake news, but it is likely that the fabrications on Facebook and elsewhere thrived in part in a vacuum left by the diminished condition of state and local coverage.
A Wilmington, Del., daily that I picked up at a hotel while visiting a daughter at school right before Halloween was a case in point. Though it was ostensibly a hometown paper, it was part of a national chain, and what passed for important news was a story about a former beauty pageant winner whose selfie with her dog had been broadcast on a television morning show. Most of the rest of the local section was devoted to robberies and shootings; there was nothing, to my recollection, about the election, which was then just over a week away.
Across the country, more than a score of city dailies, large and small, have closed during the last decade. Cuts in the number of political reporters have been frequent among those that have survived. Though the newsrooms of the national newspapers remained full, their perspective, emanating from the coasts and from a handful of state capitals, blinded journalists to the Trump phenomenon.
My guess is that healthy traditional newsgathering of the sort enjoyed by Americans before the rise of the digital age would have better predicted Mr. Trump’s impending success. It is not so much that his voters were invisible, but that in the gutting of America’s newsrooms, there was no one really looking.