Thursday, June 09, 2011

Despite surge in online news, federal study finds independent, local watchdog coverage is at risk

"In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting," said the study, which was ordered by the Federal Communications Commission and written by Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, according to this The New York Times story.

The study, out today, continues: "The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism -- going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy -- is in some cases at risk at the local level."

The findings are of particular interest to Gannett, the single-largest publisher of community newspapers based on annual revenue: 81 dailies, not including USA Today, the nation's largest in print by circulation.

Ken Paulson, the former USA Today editor who is now president of the American Society of News Editors, defended community papers, according to this Associated Press story.

"While there are probably fewer reporters sitting in city council and municipal board meetings . . . America's newspapers have not abandoned investigative journalism," he told the news service.

Paulson said newspapers can do unprecedented investigative work using sophisticated high-tech tools. The A.P. says he cited database analysis and sophisticated online mapping programs, which can provide readers with detailed information about their individual neighborhoods.

Question for Paulson: Jeepers! Sophisticated mapping software? When's the last time you were in one of Gannett's newsrooms?

Earlier: In Montgomery, watchdog reporting on a budget.

[Image: today's Montgomery Advertiser, Newseum]


  1. What's happened to government watchdog reporting in your community?

  2. I live in the Washington area and I can tell you the local coverage here really sucks. We have had a corruption scandal erupt in Prince George's County, historically the most troubled suburbs, and the former county exec is heading for the slammer. There have also been many ethical eruptions in the D.C. government, which is constitutionally questionable from the outset. But since no one is covering the courts or prosecutors, we don't find out about this until arrests are made and charges filed. About a month ago, USA Today did a piece about cheating on student scores that the Washington Post should have had, but they don't really cover schools anymore. It's a disgrace.
    I am sure Paulson is right and that all we need is some new whiz-bang software, and everything will be put right again.

  3. It is one of the great illusions of local newspaper staffing that you can have consistently great in-depth reporting without consistently great beat reporting.

  4. We've all become chicken nuggets, parts is parts. Investigative journalism takes time and money and precious few papers are willing to invest these days.

  5. But if the Pentagon follows this recommendation and steers its ads away from national publication and towards local publications, won't that be a devasting hit for USA Today? And are young people of recruitment age (to whom these ads are primarily direted) reading local newspapers anymore?

  6. Well said 1:23. Investigative teams that fly in and fly out of an issue are good only for long, boring stories that win prizes. Beat reporters can dig into issues that hit close to home, and people's pocketbooks. Sources trust them and will tell them where the bodies are buried. But good beat reporters are a long-term investment. Can't keep switching them around and laying them off willy nilly if you want to keep the beat strong.

  7. No such watchdog reporting happening in Cincinnati. Editors canceled council coverage long ago except for the city of Cincinnati. As a result, major decisions affecting thousands or tens of thousands of people go unreported, at least until the city press release goes out. But we've got the T&A beat covered, for sure. And we put out damn good calendars.

  8. 1:23 and 3:11 are 100% right about the value of beat reporting in finding bigger scandals. And the best example of that is a story that might otherwise have never been reported:

    The Los Angeles Times' highly regarded series about government misspending in Bell, Calif., a series of stories that won the most sought-after of the Pulitzer Prizes - the one for public service.

    That was the very type of city council beat reporting that Paulson says is "probably" (probably?!) getting less attention these days.

  9. Re Bell, Calif.....It certainly took the L.A. Times a heck of a long time to catch on to the mega million salaries being pumped out at town hall!

    My first reaction upon hearing the story was a big question: Why didn't the citizens know about this long ago? The salaries, after all, are PUBLIC RECORD.

    The reason is simply that the press wasn't covering Bell on a regular basis. And if it was, it was blind.

    Frankly, I think the L.A. Times should have gotten the Pulitzer for catch-up journalism.

  10. There is exactly one person in my newsroom who does maps and databases, out of a news reporting staff of about 20. No one else has been trained to do so.

    But Paulson's logic, if I understand it correctly, is not that newspapers are doing more with mapping software and databases, but that readers can log on to these Flash maps online and check out what's going on in their townss and neighborhoods themselves by looking at a column of numbers.

    That is not reporting - that's abdicating our responsibility to be professionals, full-time examiners of trends and facts, who can use our experience to explain what's going on - the stories behind the numbers, and the trends that aren't reflected in data sets.

  11. 8:02 a.m. is exactly right regarding Bell.

    "Facing budget cuts of its own, the Times was no longer covering smaller cities on a day-to-day basis ... The only other coverage of the city comes from a chain of community newspapers, which covers Bell and 14 other communities with a single reporter who hasn’t been to a Bell City Council meeting in 17 years, according to Times media critic James Rainey."

  12. Spot on @416.

    And true, Mr. Paulson. Newspapers haven't abandoned journalism. But some of their parent companies have.

    I doubt Paulson could stomach what it takes to put out a solid community paper, what it takes to be a beat OR project reporter these days. And he's clearly blind to the reality of GCI newsrooms. Sure, you CAN have powerful tools and databases. But is your paper willing to buy them, train you, and give you time to do the reporting to understand what the data really show?

    Not so much. GCI wants it all cheap or free. No lawyers to lean on courts that won't produce records. Little or no travel. Little hardware newer than 2006. Few software upgrades. Servers that choke on deadline. No smart phones, data plans or other essential gadgets -- bring your own, you hacks.

    The only thing our newsroom is rich in is empty desks, cheap pens, big plans with little support, and people still busting their asses to put out a paper and manage a website they can be proud of and their communities can depend on.

    That's why so many beat reporters, investigative reporters, assignment editors, copy editors and photographers are tired, demoralized and wondering what in the world Gannett wants to be.

    Information Centers spit out data -- like a telephone book or a spreadsheet.

    Newsrooms put it into context, take you to the neighborhood, dig out why things are the way they are and point out how things might be better.

    Many of us still strive for that kind of journalism in spite of G A N N E T T and its lip-service marketing campaign.

    This company hobbles its own horses, all the while yelling "faster! faster! faster!" Pretty soon, they'll just be beating dead horses, picking over bones and selling glue.

    I bet there's a bonus for that.

  13. 10:15pm said it all, nothing worth adding but so much to mourn.

  14. 10:15 is spot on, sadly enough.

  15. Gannett should do everyone a favor and turn its sickly newspapers into shoppers, ending this pretense that the company cares about journalism. The local Gannett newspaper has become a fraud and a rip-off. No wonder the community hates us.


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.