This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?


Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic… .“none of this is written down anywhere, but it’s real. The hamster wheel, then, is investigations you will never see, good work left undone, public service not performed.

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 44:

Who suffers from the lack of court coverage? Often, those who most need someone to look out for them. Consider child welfare cases. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Detroit Free Press had a full-time beat reporter, Jack Kresnack, covering family courts. His pieces about the child abuse death of a boy at the hands of his parents led to changes in guardianship laws; his series about the murder of a child by his foster parents led to criminal charges. But Kresnack left in 2007 and has not been replaced.133 In Michigan, coverage of juvenile and family courts has become “smaller and smaller over the years,” according to Vivek Sankaran, director of the new Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.134 Without scrutiny, he says, mistakes are made that have a life-changing impact: “Parents whose rights are terminated who shouldn’t be terminated,” he says. “It’s that type of story. It just takes somebody to go down there to get the story, but nobody is ever down there.”

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“Only 23 states have reporters in Washington, DC”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 54:

Although there are still dozens of reporters covering the big stories about Congress, there are far fewer covering Congressional delegations—especially their work on local issues. Twenty-seven states have no Washington reporters, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The number of papers with bureaus in the capital has dropped by about half since the mid-1980s; the number of reporters working for regional papers dropped from 200 in the mid-1990s to 73 at the end of 2008. The Down East website in Maine, which has no Washington reporters, described well the implications:

In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know. Maine voters are dependent on the delegation’s assessment of itself.

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“State government spending has increased. But the number of reporters covering it has plummeted”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 44:

State Government: States spent more than $1.2 trillion in fiscal year 2008, compared with $977 billion in 2003—and yet the number of reporters covering statehouses has fallen sharply. A comprehensive survey by the American Journalism Review found that the number of statehouse reporters has dropped by one-third—from 524 in 2003 to 355 in 2009.

The story is the same in state after state.

During a time when New Jersey government has been beset by scandals, the number of journalists covering the capitol has fallen from 39 in 2003 to 15 in 2009.

In California, which is battling one of the nation’s worst budget crises, 29 newspaper reporters covered the statehouse in 2009, down from 40 six years earlier.

Georgia had 14 full-time statehouse newspaper reporters in 2003; in 2009 it had five.

In 1989, 83 people covered the state legislature, governor, or executive agencies in Texas. In 2009, 53 did, according to the Houston Chronicle.

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.