About those ‘Glory Days of American Journalism’

Matthew Yglesias retreats from his argument, but not far enough. He forgot state and local reporting.

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:

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.

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.

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.

Some national organizations make it because they can attract sufficiently large audiences to outrun the lousy economics of declining ad rates. But the economics that work for Slate—whose content can attract readers from around the world—do not work for local news. Readers in London may be interested in Yglesias’ take on the Greek crisis, but they are not interested in the garbage pickup crisis in Akron.

Some media organizations are trying to solve this by charging readers, and this could well work out. But keep in mind that the sorts of reporting least likely to withstand a CFO’s cost-benefit analysis, even in a paid-content world, are the ones that are labor intensive and have small potential audience and limited advertiser appeal—e.g. investigative journalism and beat reporting about boring-but-important institutions. By contrast, financial reporting of the sort provided by the outlets that Yglesias mentions—Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal—will probably do fine because people are willing to pay for it.

Yglesias’ optimism is not misplaced in this sense: If we are able to figure out a way of filling the gaps in reporting in certain areas, we really will have the best media system we’ve ever had. The positive attributes of the digital media world that he pointed to are real. Furthermore, good reporting can have a greater impact than ever, because it can be spread and analyzed and enhanced so easily by “the crowd” and people knowledgeable about the topic.

Many people are experimenting with new ways—some commercial, some nonprofit—to solve the crisis in local accountability reporting. But remedies will not be found if the starting point is that these are the “glory days.”

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Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist. Tags: , , ,