Monday, December 29, 2008

When the press corps packs it in

Conventional wisdom dictates that new technology is killing newspapers as we once knew them. But I believe history will show that the greedy stockholders of publicly-held companies hastened their demise. For years they squeezed double-digit profits out of their news holdings instead of investing in the future – in innovative uses of new technologies, in smarter coverage, in outreach to newspaper audiences. And now, with those years of profits over, those same corporate owners are squeezing the life out of newspapers themselves.

If they succeed, I believe we’ll all be the losers, because a robust democracy can’t survive without a robust press. And it's not yet clear just who will cover the news if newspapers aren't around to do so. Already, some of these newspapers are on life support.

How bad are things? Consider the city of Detroit. It no longer has a home-delivered daily printed newspaper. To save money, its two major dailies, operating jointly, recently cut home delivery to three days a week.

It can be argued, of course, that the quality of news isn’t affected by its form of delivery. (Starting in April, The Christian Science Monitor, other than a weekly print product, will publish online only.) But much more than the means of delivery has changed. Newspapers in particular, but television and radio stations as well, have sharply reduced their staffs. The result, arguably, is a public that is less informed and a government that operates with less constraint, less public oversight.

On Dec. 18, for example, under the headline “Big News in Washington, but Far Fewer Cover It,” Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times chronicled how many newspapers no longer cover the nation’s Capitol even as Americans are turning to the federal government to resuscitate an economic system teetering near collapse and a health-care system not far behind.

“We used to cover the Pentagon, combing through defense contracts … but basically we don’t do it anymore,” the chief of the Dallas Morning News Washington bureau told Perez-Pena. “We had someone at the Justice Department but no longer. We can’t free someone up for a long time to do a major project.”

Donald A. Ritchie, associate Senate historian and author of a book on the Washington press corps, noted that the recession alone can’t explain the shrinking press corps. He told Perez-Pena that the number of Washington reporters grew during the Depression. The same should be happening today as we enter the activist era of an Obama presidency.

And the Washington press corps is merely the most visible symbol of a broad-based decline in breadth and depth of coverage that, though accelerating now, has been in the making for well over a decade. Reporting on The State of the American Newspaper in 1998, when the press remained relatively robust, the American Journalism Review noted a sharp decline in coverage of state government even as states were taking on more and more responsibility.

Any study of the State of the American Newspaper in 2008 could be summed up in a word: Horrible. This fall, The Newark Star-Ledger, the country's 15th largest newspaper, nearly folded before reaching a labor agreement that offered buyouts to roughly 50 percent of its newsroom staff, according to NPR's "One the Media." Coast to coast, from The Boston Globe to The Los Angeles Times, major newspapers have shed editorial staff. It has gotten so bad that I can count more than a half dozen former colleagues students who survived layoffs and buyouts but quit anyway in the last half year when faced with shrinking newsroom opportunities and much more demand for productivity.

The impact of this drain is already evident. When I entered journalism in the mid-1970s, my professors and editors took seriously the press' role as a "Watchdog of Government," a profession charged with keeping those handling the nation’s purse strings honest, or at least minimizing the degree to which they might cheat the system and its citizenry. With scores of brave and notable exceptions, today’s overburdened reporters act more and more not as watchdogs but as scribes and gossip columnists of government, twittering about Obama in a bathing suit or scrambling to be first in reporting the same leaked story about a cabinet appointment that everyone else is reporting. This obsession with the unimportant or all too predictable can’t be blamed on a starving press corps alone. But when fewer reporters remain to cover Washington, the nation's statehouses and its cities, there’s a greater chance they’ll mostly be chasing the low-hanging fruit and not stories that demand discipline and digging.

To see why a robust press corps matters, we need look no further than at the sordid tale of Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street wizard who ripped off investors to the tune of $50 billion – three times the current Big Three auto bailout. From what I’ve read, the Securities and Exchange Commission had been warned about Madoff for years before his empire collapsed and had given only the most cursory attention to those warnings.
If the SEC was asleep at the regulatory wheel, the "watchdog" press was snoring at the regulator's feet. Now, the pain spiraling from Madoff’s massive Ponzi Scheme is circling around the world, shutting some charities and scarring others.

Finding solutions to the problem of fewer reporters at a time of more news won’t prove easy. Even National Public Radio, funded in part by government and mostly by the public, recently announced cuts in its operations, including in news. Web sites can support small staffs profitably, but their ad revenues for now at least do not approach what's been enjoyed by newspapers in flush times, when they could profit handsomely and still hire staffs big enough to investigate as well as provide basic coverage. And the explosion of armchair columnists and bloggers, oped writers and editorialists – people like me, in other words – can’t make up for the decline in reporting.

At best, the analysts and opinion writers can bring insight to issues of importance that find their way before the public. But they cannot – and do not – typically break stories showing fraud, deceit and mismanagement. That is the role of a robust press corps following the news regularly -- of reporters working a beat, looking through public records, talking to whistle blowers and others within government who want to see it operate better.

One source of plentiful, if green, reporters is the hundreds of journalism programs across the country. Might there be a way for veteran reporters and editors to put these students to work directly for the country’s shrinking news organizations? Issues of labor exploitation and inaccuracy borne of inexperience stand in the way. But they may not be insurmountable if, for example, the student reporters are paid an apprentice wage and their work is overseen closely.

The alternative isn’t palatable. As the desks and computers of news organizations sit idle – or get sold on eBay – fewer and fewer reporters will be left to keep the public informed or to ensure that those the public elects serve a cause greater than themselves.

Even as Americans are swept up in the hope and optimism elicited by the new administration, that reality casts a long shadow on the promise of better governance.

Published on, 01/06/08

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A beacon of hope in bleak midwinter

At least, I wrote to a friend this afternoon, we can look forward to a better New Year.

The days once again are getting longer. And George W. Bush's tenure as president is getting shorter. Who could ask for more?

In the train wreck that has been his presidency, the corpses are still being carried. November marked the sharpest decline ever recorded in a month in housing prices. Toyota showed a loss for the first time ever. No one seems to have a clue what the banks did with the $350 billion in our taxpayer money. And Dick Cheney? He still thinks the administration did everything right,including, no doubt, the time he shot his duck-hunting buddy. Bah. Humbug. Bam.
You've got to love this guy. Who needs Dr. Strangelove?

Now it seems safe to say, at least it will soon end. Barack Obama takes office facing almost insurmountable odds against success. But at least he does it with a brain, a vocabulary and what so far seems like a real commitment to govern rather than simply score political points while the oceans rise to global warming and America's future sinks. We have a chance, in other words, to stanch the bleeding, to look beyond our own individual pain and bickering, to emerge whole and as a nation, one that stands for something.

How did we get so far off course? I have but one New Year's wish as we settle in for a week of eating and drinking. My wish is that Barack Obama, indeed all of us, be bold. Bold enough to try something new. Bold enough to share with those less fortunate. Bold enough to accept that all effort entails some failure.

In the end, failure is not to try something and come up short. Failure is the fear of trying at all. I don't think President Barack Hussein Obama will fall into that trap.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A not so jolly season

I struck out (0 for 5) on catalogue shopping this Christmas. So I screwed up my courage and headed for my local (Burlington, Mass.) mall. It was 10:30 a.m., two weeks before the big day, and I braced for the worst. I hate shopping almost any time. I hate malls worse.

I knew we are living in strange times when I parked toward the front of the lot, four rows from the entrance. Inside eight or 10 kids were lined up to see Santa. Sale signs were in every window. And stores looked about as crowded as an ice-skating rink in July.

If this is a true snapshot of America today, in another quarter we'll be lookling wistfully back at those lousy November sales and unemployment figures. Because America's consumer culture seems flat-out moribund. I bought five gifts (shhh, can't say what in case Kathy looks at my blog). This I can tell you. The price of one was 40 percent off. The other four I bought at half price. That's right, two weeks before Christmas. And still I was one of only a few shoppers in the stores.

It doesn't feel much like Christmas this year. Three days of rain certainly hasn't helped. But there's no bounce in the step of people boarding the bus or MBTA, no one is carrying shopping bags, even the too-friendly drunks have left town. People, I suspect, are either feeling or fearing the pain.

After the initial euphoria over Barack Obama's election, another reality seems to have sunk in with Americans: We're in for a long winter, years long perhaps, of getting along with less. The wrecking crew of the last eight years has done a devastating job.

I figure I'll keep spending, moderately and within my means as I always have. But big ticket items aren't on my Christmas list this year -- not even at 50 percent off. Who knows how low the market will drop, how battered the economy will get, or even whether both of our jobs will make it through all this. I'm pretty confident they will. But for those less confident or already out of work, even blowout bonanzas, as some signs promise, offer no bargain this year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sometimes timing is everything

Let's tinker with time. Just a little, by a month or two.

What if the date were Oct. 9, 2008, four weeks before the presidential election, and FBI agents in Chicago announced major indictments against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, releasing tape recording transcripts that, if authentic, show him to be a truly greedy sleaze. Republican candidate John McCain jumps on the news, calling Barack Obama -- who twice supported the governor for office -- a candidate not of change but of corrupt Chicago political machine. "I fought to clean up political fund-raising," McCain thunders. "He's blown off the system and poured more money into his campaign than any candidate in history."

Cable news jumps all over the story, exploring the governor's relationship with other Illinois power brokers such as Antoin Rezko, the campaign fund-raiser who sold Barack Obama his home. Obama has to defend himself parrying two tough questions at the final presidential debate. The hub-bub puts a serious crease in his armor and distracts the public from the economy for several days. The polls begin to close.

Now, let's say, two weeks later on Oct. 23, 2008, terrorists take hostages at two Mumbai hotels and other sites. By the time the carnage is done, 10 days before the election, nearly 200 deaths have been reported. McCain's team puts out a new ad that says, "Could the terrorists strike New York again? Is it really time to take a chance on change? Put integrity and experience in the White House. Vote John McCain. The polls tighten some more.

Part of running a winning campaign for the presidency is a to establish the arc of a good story line. That takes timeliness: Obama's call for change we need preceded by weeks a crisis that brought home how much we really needed change. Now, five weeks before he takes office, nearly four in five Americans polled say he's off to a good start. Those are fabulous numbers.

But running for the highest office also requires a little luck. And in the fall of 2008, Barack Obama was helped by what didn't happen. It's intriguing. He might have survived the double punch of Blagojevich and Mumbai before the election. But things surely would have been a lot closer.