Yesterday, Charles Arthur was talking about the demise of local newspapers in some communities and how the rapid disappearance of proper investigative journalism at the local level makes councils unaccountable to local populations.
Let's say it's true. What would we see to validate this hypothesis? Well...if local councils really become unaccountable when local papers cease to investigate them, I'd expect to see a big increase in the value of positions of financial authority at local government level. Those positions will suddenly become a lot more valuable if no-one is watching the purse-strings all that carefully, so more candidates will want them and those candidates will spend more to win them.
It's possible that what we have here is a rather lovely natural experiment. If a newspaper closes down in a town, what impact does that have on the apparent attractiveness of local government positions in that town? How many more candidates, and how much do they spend on their campaign (especially, possibly, the new candidates)? Measure that, and you can measure the value to accountable democracy that the newspaper used to deliver. Scott Karp said we should measure where the ad dollars go in Seattle now the PI has gone online-only. I think we should measure where the campaign dollars go. Then we'll know what the watchdog of Seattle democracy was worth.
Update: couldn't find this earlier but then I, err, tried harder and did...writing in Slate three years ago Tim Harford proposed a rough measure of corruption (in US politics) - what % of the budget up for grabs are lobbyists willing to spend to influence it? He reckoned then that the answer was about 0.1%. If after the closure of a local paper we can see a significant change in the % of local government budgets that candidates are willing to spend to get into power, or local interest groups are willing to spend to get influence, perhaps we can say that local government has become that much more corrupt.