Matt Yglesias has more or less conceded that there is a flaw in his argument—that we are living in the “Glory Days of American Journalism,” as the headline of his piece in Slate put it last week. “Ignore the doomsayers,” the subhead advised. “The news-reading public has never had more and better information at their fingertips.”
The boo boo was that he forgot about state and local coverage.
After Conor Friedersdorf pointed this out—“American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards”—in The Atlantic, Yglesias, to his credit, wrote a second piece, saying, “On its face, this really is a weak point.”
It certainly is. It’s a little like a doctor saying the patient is healthy as an ox, as long as you pay no mind to the green puss oozing from his arm. It’s an oversight that more or less undermines the entire point.
Yglesias then retreated to what he thought was safer ground, suggesting that the problems with local news vary by locality and that it’s difficult to generalize. Via Twitter, David Bernstein of The Boston Phoenix responded:
.@mattyglesias Not meaning to be argumentative, but it’s very generalizable; it’s a well-quantified natl trend in local journalism.— David S. Bernstein (@dbernstein) March 19, 2013
Yglesias then came back to argue that what has been measured is the drop in the number of reporters, but not the drop in what news is actually available for readers. Bernstein wasn’t having any of that, either.
.@mattyglesias Also increasingly well-quantified. I just think you’re in very poor footing for your blanket ‘golden age’ claim.— David S. Bernstein (@dbernstein) March 19, 2013
So who is right?
Yglesias is right that there are regional variations. And Bernstein is right that there has been some quantification of the drop in outputs—i.e. useful information to readers. But I’m also going to argue that looking at “inputs”—journalistic body count—actually is a relevant metric, too. And by either measure, local journalism is a long way from any Glory Days, at least when it comes to serious, labor-intensive reporting on important issues.
First, let’s look at outputs. The best assessment of a single media ecosystem—measuring both the losses in traditional reporting and the increases in new media—was the Pew Research Center’s study of Baltimore in 2011. Pew found 53 different outlets offering local news. That’s quite a bit more than they probably would have found in the pre-digital era. More information, in more places, just as Yglesias senses.
But then Pew analyzed all the stories on city affairs, both those printed on paper and in pixels. It found that 95 percent of the stories—including those in the new media—were based on reporting done by traditional media (mostly The Baltimore Sun). And those sources were doing less than they had done in the past: the Sun produced 31 percent fewer stories on city matters than in 1999 and 73 percent fewer than in 1991. The decline in the number of reporters had led to a drop in the output of original local reporting.
Worse, Pew found that as a result, public officials were far more likely to dictate the story lines. “As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such… Government, at least in this study, initiates most of the news.” One PR professional explained in an FCC report on the state of the news that I helped write, “Newsrooms have been gutted and, particularly at the local level, journalists rely on press releases… to help them fill their ever-increasing news hole.” (This mirrors the national trend, as John Sullivan noted in a piece in CJR two years ago).
That journalists might be filling news holes by relying more on press releases points out one problem with coarsely measuring raw output. More “news” doesn’t mean more reporting. Original reporting that is done has more ways to travel through a media ecosystem—blogs, tweets, retweets, aggregators, phone apps, Facebook shares, etc—improving distribution and creating a sense of abundance, even though the core reporting is the same or worse.
Even traditional media are exhibiting a version of this phenomenon. For instance, from 2003 to 2009, local TV news stations actually increased their output—by 35 percent. But they achieved this mostly by adding early morning broadcasts and repeating the material from other hours, not by bulking up reporting capacity. And the recent Pew Research “State of the Media” report, which prompted Yglesias’s article in the first place, says that local TV news coverage has shifted toward sports, weather, and traffic.