But the News & Observer is no longer the same paper. Professor James Hamilton of Duke University (a consultant to the Future of Media project) studied changes at the News & Observer and found that its newsroom of 250 employees in 2004 had been reduced to 132 in 2009. By February 2011, the newsroom headcount was down to 103. Among the beats the paper stopped covering full time: Durham courts, Durham schools, legal affairs, agriculture, science, environment, and statewide public education. And among the losses in staff were a “workplace reporter” who once produced stories on illegal immigrants in North Carolina, visa violations, and companies that evaded unemployment tax payments; a full-time banking reporter who had written about predatory lending in the state and about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s mortgage ties in the Research Triangle Park, a well-known high-tech research and development center; a full-time tech reporter who had covered the many high-tech companies in the Research Triangle Park; and a pharmaceutical reporter who covered local drug and health companies. “With all those full-time reporters gone, the odds of similar series and stories being written have declined,” Hamilton concluded.

Repercussions like those Hamilton observed in North Carolina are evident at newspapers throughout the country: Many staff cutbacks have occurred on beats that had enormous civic impact but lacked sexy, marketable stories. As editors prune beats to leave only those that generate buzz—or, in the case of websites, traffic—they are tempted to serve fewer portions of “broccoli journalism,” i.e. stories that might be both unpopular but good for you.

What you tend to cut is the day in, day out, beat reporting—or the city council meeting, or doing three days of reporting on the immigration bill instead of one,” says Mark Silverman, editor of the (Nashville) Tennessean. “There’s less time to invest in in-depth coverage.”

(For more, see the FCC report’s chapter, How Big Is the Local Reporting Gap and Who Will Fill It?, starting at page 262.)

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“Full-time, professional journalists have less time to go beyond press releases”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 245:

In some ways, the Internet has increased the influence of press releases. Wally Dean, a longtime TV news executive, says that stations often refer to people as “beat reporters” when really they are just the point person for press releases on a particular topic. “Frequently the so-called health reporter fronts the health news but is using handouts from the health industry or using material from one of the feeds coming into the TV station,” Dean says.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum described a company that put out a press release with a false claim about a new deal it had made with record labels. Major news outlets, such as the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, AP, and Reuters, among many others, published the story without verification. While most outlets followed up with corrections, few of them posted the correction along with their original article, and thus the “uncorrected version continued to proliferate on overseas news websites…. And that can only lead to grief, thanks to the magic of Google caches and message boards, where original copies of the story can still be found.” Chittum explained, “Events move so fast that there often seems to be little time to check facts, and announcement-based reporting is given too much prominence.”

Amy Mengel, head of inbound marketing for public relations firm readMedia, wrote about this issue on a message board dedicated to public relations topics: “Newsrooms have been gutted and, particularly at the local level, journalists rely on press releases…to help them fill their ever-increasing news hole.” By one estimate, the ratio of public relations professionals to journalists is now four to one, compared with one to one just 30 years ago.

Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.