When The Press Corps Packs It In

Conventional wisdom dictates that new technology is killing newspapers as we once knew them. But I believe history will show that the greedy stockholders of publicly-held companies hastened their demise. For years they squeezed double-digit profits out of their news holdings instead of investing in the future - in innovative uses of new technologies, in smarter coverage, in outreach to newspaper audiences. And now, with those years of profits over, those same corporate owners are squeezing the life out of newspapers themselves.

If they succeed, I believe we'll all be the losers, because a robust democracy can't survive without a robust press. And it's not yet clear just who will cover the news if newspapers aren't around to do so. Already, some of these newspapers are on life support.

How bad are things? Consider the city of Detroit. It no longer has a home-delivered daily printed newspaper. To save money, its two major dailies, operating jointly, recently cut home delivery to three days a week.

It can be argued, of course, that the quality of news isn't affected by its form of delivery. Starting in April, for example, The Christian Science Monitor, other than a weekly print product, will publish online only. But much more than the means of delivery has changed in the news business. Newspapers in particular, but television and radio stations as well, have sharply reduced their staffs. The result, arguably, is a public that is less informed and a government that operates with less constraint, less public oversight.

On Dec. 18, for example, under the headline "Big News in Washington, but Far Fewer Cover It," Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times chronicled how many newspapers no longer cover the nation's Capitol even as Americans are turning to the federal government to resuscitate an economic system teetering near collapse and a health-care system not far behind.

"We used to cover the Pentagon, combing through defense contracts ... but basically we don't do it anymore," the chief of the Dallas Morning News Washington bureau told Perez-Pena. "We had someone at the Justice Department but no longer. We can't free someone up for a long time to do a major project."

Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian and author of a book on the Washington press corps, noted that the recession alone can't explain the shrinking press corps. He told Perez-Pena that the number of Washington reporters grew during the Depression. The same should be happening today as we enter the activist era of an Obama presidency.

And the Washington press corps is merely the most visible symbol of a broad-based decline in breadth and depth of coverage that, though accelerating now, has been in the making for well over a decade. Reporting on The State of the American Newspaper in 1998, when the press remained relatively robust, the American Journalism Review noted a sharp decline in coverage of state government even as states were taking on more and more responsibility.

Any study of the State of the American Newspaper in 2008 could be summed up in a word: Horrible. This fall, The Newark Star-Ledger, the country's 15th largest newspaper, nearly folded before reaching a labor agreement that offered buyouts to roughly 50 percent of its newsroom staff, according to NPR's "One the Media." Coast to coast, from The Boston Globe to The Los Angeles Times, major newspapers have shed editorial staff. It has gotten so bad that I can count more than a half dozen former colleagues and students who survived layoffs and buyouts but quit anyway when faced with shrinking newsroom opportunities and much more demand for productivity.
The impact of this drain is already evident. When I entered journalism in the mid-1970s, my professors and editors took seriously the press' role as a "Watchdog of Government," as a profession charged with keeping those handling the nation's purse strings honest, or at least mostly so. With scores of brave and notable exceptions, today's overburdened reporters act more and more not as watchdogs but as scribes and gossip columnists of government, twittering about Obama in a bathing suit or scrambling to be first in reporting the same leaked story about a cabinet appointment that everyone else is reporting, too. This obsession with the unimportant or all too predictable can't be blamed on a starving press corps alone. But when fewer reporters remain to cover Washington, the nation's statehouses and its cities, there's a greater chance they'll mostly grab for low-hanging fruit instead of stories that demand discipline and digging.

To see why a robust press corps matters, we need look no further than at the sordid tale of Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street wizard who ripped off investors to the tune of $50 billion - three times the current Big Three auto bailout. From what I've read, the Securities and Exchange Commission had been warned about Madoff for years before his empire collapsed and had given only the most cursory attention to those warnings. If the SEC was asleep at the regulatory wheel, the "watchdog" press was snoring at the regulator's feet. Now, the pain spiraling from Madoff's massive Ponzi Scheme is circling around the world, shutting some charities and scarring others.

Finding solutions to the problem of fewer reporters at a time of more news won't prove easy. Even National Public Radio, funded in part by government and mostly by the public, recently announced cuts in its operations, including in news. Web sites can support small staffs profitably, but their ad revenues for now at least do not approach what's been enjoyed by newspapers in flush times, when they could profit handsomely and still hire staffs big enough to investigate as well as provide basic coverage. And the explosion of armchair columnists and bloggers, oped writers and editorialists - people like me, in other words - can't make up for the decline in reporting.

At best, the analysts and opinion writers can bring insight to issues of importance that find their way before the public. But they cannot - and do not - typically break stories showing fraud, deceit and mismanagement. That is the role of a robust press corps following the news regularly -- of reporters working a beat, looking through public records, talking to whistle blowers and others within government who want to see it operate better.

One source of plentiful, if green, reporters is the hundreds of journalism programs across the country. Might there be a way for veteran reporters and editors to put these students to work directly for the country's shrinking news organizations? Issues of labor exploitation and inaccuracy borne of inexperience stand in the way. But they may not be insurmountable if, for example, the student reporters are paid an apprentice wage and their work is overseen closely.

The alternative isn't palatable. As the desks and computers of news organizations sit idle - or get sold on eBay - fewer and fewer reporters will be left to keep the public informed or to ensure that those the public elects serve a cause greater than themselves.

Even as Americans are swept up in the hope and optimism elicited by the new administration, that reality casts a long shadow on the promise of better governance.

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