Excellent story in the Journalists Resources blog on the importance of newspapers.
To put it simply: a prof at Portland State University named Lee Shaker set out to quantify the question by coming up with a measure of civic engagement and then looked at two cities with newspapers that went away (the Rocky Mountain News, in Denver) and went on-line only (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
The top three results, drawn from the study, which was entitled "Dead Newspapers and Citizens Civic Engagement":
"The study’s findings include: At the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official, buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values, and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Measures of civic engagement in Denver and Seattle declined between 2008 and 2009. In Denver, four out of the five civic-engagement indicators declined significantly between 2008 and 2009, and Seattle saw declines in two out of five engagement categories.
In the other metropolitan areas studied almost none showed a statistically significant change in civic engagement. One measure, boycotting goods and services, declined significantly in Cincinnati while four indicators in different areas increased in that city.
At a national level, civic engagement did decline between 2008 and 2009, but less so than observed in Denver and Seattle."
Which makes sense to this reporter, but it's nice to see in black and white. Hope the quantification stands up to scrutiny. Hope it gets some scrutiny!