Look, too, at cable TV. It certainly doesn’t feel like we have less cable news. But as the Pew study showed, the networks have shifted toward talk over reporting, because the former generates comparable ratings at a much lower cost. (Full disclosure: I work as a consultant to the Pew Research Center, though not on the State of the Media report, and my views here are my own. In addition, my views on this topic were laid out in tedious detail earlier, in the FCC report I spearheaded on “The Information Needs of Communities.” )
So in general, in the local sphere (and in some cases nationally as well), we have more outlets and more stories. No wonder it feels like the “glory days.” But we also have less underlying reporting being produced to provide the grist.
To be sure, in some cases the drop in original reporting has been offset by availability of non-journalistically-provided information. Maybe there isn’t a reporter covering the transit authority any more but a regular reader can look on the MTA website to see which trains are late. But few governments and fewer private entities put out information that they think will make them look bad, unless forced. Digital technology has changed much, but not that particular aspect of human nature. Some information has to be extracted before it can be shared. And that usually takes reporters.
There’s another problem in proving that a drop in the number of reporters has led to harmful drops in the provision of information: How do we know what we don’t know?
Consider: The number of people covering state legislatures has declined by at least a third, and most of these have not been replaced by reporting-oriented bloggers. In 2003, 39 people covered New Jersey government; in 2009, 15 did. Georgia had 14 full-time statehouse reporters in 2003; in 2009 it had five. In Pennsylvania, 40 correspondents covered the legislature in 1987. In 2011 there were 19 and Matthew Brouillette, president of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, says “You can swing a dead cat and not hit anybody in the state Capitol newsroom.”
It’s hard to say what exactly is not being reported, and surely some of those correspondents were doing duplicative or frivolous work. But do we really think such a drop has improved matters?
When we were working on the FCC report, we struggled with how to assess what was not being done. We talked to non-journalist experts in particular areas who frequently said important trends or stories were going unreported. For instance, a family court advocate in Michigan described egregious cases of parents losing rights because the messed up juvenile justice system isn’t covered anymore. “Parents whose rights are terminated who shouldn’t be terminated,” said Vivek Sankaran, director of the new Detroit Center for Family Advocacy. “It just takes somebody to go down there to get the story, but nobody is ever down there.”
We also talked to editors about what stories had been left on the drawing board as a result of having fewer reporters. For instance, a Tennessee newspaper editor said that when they cut from two health reporters to one, they mothballed a story—very labor intensive and costly to do—on the weakness of the office that was supposed to watch over incompetent doctors. Did a single person in Tennessee notice that the story that they didn’t know was in the works didn’t get done? I doubt it. But I think we can agree that the failure to do that story could well have had consequences for Tennesseans who ended up being treated by doctors who shouldn’t be practicing.
Measuring the number of reporters can seem like a primitive, industry-centered way of looking at things. After all, not all of those laid off reporters were muckrakers and some were local movie reviewers, not city hall reporters. But given the difficulties of truly measuring “outputs,” the body count of lost reporters turns out to be a decent proxy for assessing the health of local accountability journalism.
There is one less-commented-upon flaw in Yglesias’ reasoning. He says ad rates are low because readers have so many choices. That’s partly right. But, more importantly, ad rates on news sites are low because advertisers have so many choices. As ad dollars have migrated from print or TV to the web, they have not, for the most part, gone to digital news or content sites. A local business can often reach his area customers on Google or Facebook just as well—in effect, better—than if he advertises on a local blog. So even a really good local news operation will struggle to survive if it is dependent on ads.