Popken says that “instead of bringing the data from on high—this is what we have from these experts and this is what the company PR person says—we are taking it from the customers.” It is a perspective and technique that newspapers could employ to great effect—and with more balanced reporting standards—and which might help them match Consumerist’s success in getting two million unique visitors per month with a staff of just four journalists.
Another newspaper tradition that the Web challenges is the tendency to ignore stories broken by other newspapers. A good example of this comes from the Galveston County Daily News, which since 2005 has been digging into a state program that is supposed to result in lower costs for electricity for schools and other government agencies.
The story began with coverage of a Galveston Housing Authority board meeting at which a new reporter, Sarah Viren, listened carefully when officials took up a subject that would make the eyes of most editors glaze over: an electricity-supply contract. Soon Viren, joined by reporter Martin Schladen, was questioning how much money the Reliant utility in Houston was making from a deal that was supposed to supply cheap electricity to public agencies like the housing authority and schools. (Disclosure: Schladen wrote favorably about my latest book’s chapters on electricity pricing manipulations.)
The inquiries upset both the utility and Jerry Patterson, the state land commissioner, who used his own Visa card to pay $2,212.85 for a full-page ad headlined “The Galveston Daily News and Vladimir Lenin Have Something in Common.” It told readers not to believe what the paper had reported about the cost of electricity and who benefits. But publisher Dolph Tillotson stood by his reporters. The paper noted that the state refused to release documents on the costs and benefits of the program and, at one point, demanded $93,000 before reporters could see them. Eventually, Viren and Schladen got the documents, and they proved that the program not only did not make a profit or save taxpayers money, but actually cost taxpayers and may have produced big profits for Reliant.
The stories reported in Galveston affect virtually every resident of Texas. Yet, with the exception of a few pieces by R. A. “Jake” Dyer, the consumer reporter recently laid off by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and a few other scattered pieces, no other newspaper has dug deeply in what the Daily News found, or connected in some way to its reporting. “Reporters used to cover utility-rate cases and question the reason electricity or gas should cost more,” says Mindy Spatt, the publicist for the Utility Reform Network, a California consumer organization. “Now the newspapers just report that a rate case was approved and electricity will cost so much more per month.”
But the Daily News readers told the newspaper they were eager to read more about this investigation that affected their wallets by causing them to pay more than necessary in taxes for government agencies, Tillotson said.
Bob Jenks, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer group in Oregon, said that coverage of utilities exposes a bias in news coverage that favors corporate interests. But when readers tell newspapers they want news that helps them keep their heads above the rising water, smart publishers and journalists listen. When the economy stands on the brink of what some warn could be a major downturn, possibly even a depression, readers are eager to know what went wrong, and what they can do to limit the collateral damage to their finances. And save their skins. Newspapers have ended nearly all beat coverage of consumer agencies that are supposed to make sure salmonella does not get into salads, E. coli does not infect hamburger meat, toys will not kill children and prescription drugs are effective.
When you are seen as a valuable ally of your readers in their daily struggles, they will more likely subscribe, and in turn help keep the vital newsrooms afloat. The Internet is, without doubt, slowly weakening the newspaper as we have known it by siphoning off much advertising revenue. But the Internet can also engage new readers and build audiences, without which there is no reason for advertisers to return.