On a warm October night toward the end of the 2014 campaign, almost every politician running for a major office in Colorado appeared at a candidate forum in Southeast Denver. The topics discussed at the local synagogue were pressing: a potential war with ISIS, voting rights, a still-struggling economy. But one key element was in conspicuously short supply: the media.
This is increasingly the reality in much of the country, as campaigns play out in communities where the local press corps has been thinned by layoffs and newspaper closures. What if you held an election and nobody showed up to cover it? Americans are now discovering the answer.
Between 2003 and 2012, the newspaper workforce shrank by 30 percent nationally, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. That has included a major reduction in the number of newspaper reporters assigned to cover state and local politics. Newspaper layoffs have ripple effects for the entire local news ecosystem, because, as the Congressional Research Service noted, television, radio and online outlets often "piggyback on reporting done by much larger newspaper staffs.” Meanwhile, recent studies from the University of Chicago and the Federal Reserve Bank suggest the closure of newspapers can ultimately depress voter turnout in local elections.
Colorado is a microcosm of the hollowing out of local media. In 2009, the state lost its second-largest newspaper with the shuttering of the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News. The state's only remaining major daily, the Denver Post, has had rolling layoffs. According to Post Editor Gregory Moore, in this election cycle the paper has only 7 reporters covering elections throughout the state -- a 50 percent reduction in the last 5 years.
"We just don't have the resources to do what we were once able to do," Moore told International Business Times. "We try to select the competitive races that we really need to pay attention to, but in terms of having a body on every race, we just don't have the resources to do that."
For the 2014 election, Moore said the paper produces a voter guide providing at least a summary of almost every state and county race in the state. There’s also one full-time reporter assigned to the U.S. Senate, one assigned to the gubernatorial races and one covering the hotly contested 6th district congressional race between Republican incumbent Mike Coffman and former Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.
Challengers in districts that the Post isn’t covering say the media’s decisions about resources may help determine election outcomes.
"It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the local press assumes a race can't be close, then they don't cover it, and then that suggests to voters a candidate isn't credible," said Martin Walsh, the Republican congressional candidate challenging Denver's Democratic representative, Diana DeGette. "Ultimately, that guarantees that the race won't be close."
Even stories that do get published may have less of an impact without other journalists around to track reaction or do follow-up stories.
"With so many newspapers and news outlets in general having fewer resources, there's no pressure or incentive for candidates to engage with the press and there's no echo chamber that makes candidates feel like they have to respond to anything," Fox 31 reporter Eli Stokols told IBTimes.
An investigative scoop might get reinforced by an opposing candidate’s ads, Stokols said. But, "there's not a critical mass of media large enough or competitive enough to amplify scoops or gaffes or big stories. If it happens, it comes from national media from D.C. journalists recognizing something and blogging about it. But until it's on local TV or radio, it's probably missing most of the persuadable low-information voters out there."
In the age of a shrunken press corps, there is now little risk for well-financed, top-ticket candidates when they avoid the few media outlets that consistently cover the campaign. Any flak they might get for shirking the press is far smaller than the risk of an interview clip going viral (like the now-famous one of Coffman trying to defend his allegation that President Obama is not an American).
Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner, for example, rarely appears in unscripted settings with journalists, preferring to blanket the airwaves with ads.
"If you are a candidate with a lot of money, you can just hide out, maybe write a few op-eds, and then go back into hiding, knowing that any bad story someone might write about you being unavailable will just disappear after a day, because there's no press to hound you," Stokols said. Gardner doesn't even put out media advisories letting the press know ahead of time where he might be, said Stokols.
Gardner's campaign did not return IBTimes' call seeking comment for this story.
Romanoff, the Democratic candidate in the 6th district, said that what little campaign coverage there is often ends up being about the candidates' ads, because that requires minimal time, travel and expense to cover. And with a record $89 million worth of political ads purchased in the state this election cycle, there is no shortage of new spots to review.
"It’s not quite a Seinfeld episode, it's not a show about nothing, but the coverage has become a show about a show," he said, adding that it is a marked shift from his time only a few years ago as a state legislator. "Back then, there was a press corps that covered the capital, and there was news being made every day because you are voting on bills, you are amending them and there was a more robust corps of capital reporters. But on the campaign trail these days, the primary way to get to voters is through paid media and a grassroots field operation."
During a recent get-out-the-vote rally featuring Hillary Clinton, former three-term Denver Mayor Wellington Webb reminisced about the city's legendary newspaper wars between the Post and the Rocky, when six reporters were assigned just to cover city hall.
"It was a whole different game back then," Webb said over the din of blaring music, as volunteers stopped to take pictures with him. These days, candidates running for local office have to be more focused on old-school door-knocking campaigns.
"The public is smarter than what you give them credit for, and you have to go out and be hungrier than anyone in terms of going door to door," he said. "But the question is, can you get to enough voters to make that choice?"
That's a particularly acute problem for candidates in down-ballot statewide races.
A local candidate for legislature or city council can hope to meet most voters in an election. Top-ticket statewide candidates can attract at least some media coverage. But the candidates for constitutional offices like attorney general, treasurer or secretary of state face a triple whammy: They are running in races with too many voters to meet; they get almost no coverage; and that makes it difficult for them to raise their profiles to enable them to do the fundraising needed for expensive television advertising.
One alternative, said Rick Ridder, a campaign consultant for the Democratic attorney general nominee Don Quick, is to be innovative with ads on social media and cheaper cable TV outlets.
"On our limited budget and with no press coverage, we have to try to niche-target ads to key voting blocs," Ridder said.
But while some smaller news outlets have shown signs of life -- even of profitability -- it’s not clear they can power a political campaign.
"I have yet to see someone master all the alternative media out there in a way that really lets an underfinanced candidate compete," said James Mejia, a former Denver school board member who narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 2011. "All the digital media, the blogosphere, the neighborhood weeklies -- all of them are growing and getting a larger audience, as opposed to the bigger papers, which are shrinking. But they have yet to have a major political impact because they are so diffuse."
Although his newspaper doesn’t “have the bodies to do as much as we used to do, that doesn't mean the work isn't being done” by others in the alternative press, said Denver Post editor Moore. “What I fear with limited resources is that we miss something,” he said.
That concern is well founded. Only four years ago, the New York Times published a front-page expose on Colorado’s Democratic Senator Michael Bennet engineering a complex financial scheme that ended up enriching Wall Street firms while costing the city’s school system more than $177 million dollars. The story, which came out days before a closely contested senate primary between Bennet and Romanoff, was largely missed by the Post, even though it involved a candidate in one of the highest profile races in the state. There was no Rocky Mountain News to cover it, either. Bennet, the front-runner, narrowly won the primary.
The media drawdown doesn’t make an upset impossible, though. Earlier this year in Virginia, most of the local and national media ignored the primary challenge to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, only to see him unseated by little-known college professor David Brat. It's the kind of upset that gives a candidate like Republican George Leing hope.
Running in Colorado’s second congressional district against millionaire Democratic incumbent Jared Polis, Leing has been largely ignored by the local media.
“I am realistic and I know it is getting tougher and tougher for traditional newspapers as they don't have the same- size staffs they used to have, and they have to make choices,” Leing told IBTimes, noting that he had received an endorsement from the Ft. Collins Coloradan.
“But this race is more competitive than many people think, both on a strictly numbers basis and on the merits. It is more difficult to compete if you don’t have the ability to get that message out broadly. But I think I'm going to win and shock everyone. We've seen it happen before, and I think we will be seeing it a lot more in the future, whether or not the local media covers these races.”