The Importance of Newspapers

Yesterday the New York Times published a fantastic and critically important piece of reporting by Eric Lipton on the access of corporations and their lobbyists to state attorneys general. 

The piece chronicled just about everything wrong with our political system— corporate lobbyists getting days of private access to state attorneys general at swanky retreats all while the offices of those attorneys general had to decide whether to sue those very same corporations, and once they sued them, whether to settle and for how much! 

Shockingly, this access led to some decisions that, at the very least, created the appearance of impropriety, if not any sort of actual quid pro quo. Democrats and Republicans alike looked bad and taxpayers were left to wonder if the public's lawyers was capable of acting in the public interest (the answer for several of them seems to be a resounding no). 

I could blog about the corrosive impact of money and access in the political system (especially at lower levels of the system in which two sides are less likely to have even resources), call for campaign finance reform (long overdue), or discuss the way that access is often the most critical benefit that moneyed interests have in our political system. 

But instead, I want to focus on the critical importance of Lipton's reporting and the danger to our country posed by the bleak situation facing newspapers.

Over the last decade or more, newspaper advertising revenue has dropped precipitously. In 2013, print ad revenues reached their lowest level since 1950 when the Newspaper Association of America began tracking data. According to the website Newspaper Death Watch, the constant and persistent decline in print revenue (which is not being offset by a sufficient increase in online revenue) has led to the closure of twelve North American metro dailies since 2007. Another twelve major metro dailies have either eliminated print editions, cut the number of days of publication per week, or took another similar drastic step. 

Countless other papers have gone through bankruptcy, and even the strongest newspapers, like The New York Times, have resorted to other cost cutting measures including the elimination of sections, a reduction in the number of pages in the paper, pooling content, etc. The Times recently cut 100 newsroom jobs (representing about 7.5% of the newsroom staff). 

Over the last decade, the newspaper industry has undergone a bloodletting. The blog Paper Cuts counted 41,665 newspaper industry jobs lost from the middle of 2007 when tracking began through 2012 (when the blog's data seems incomplete). According to projections by the American Society of Newspaper editors, the number of journalists working at daily newspapers declined from 56,900 in 1990 (the year the number of reporters peaked) to 36,700 in 2014. That represents a reduction of over 35%.

In 2012, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 51,700 reporters and correspondents working for print and broadcast news outlets. BLS projected that number to decline by 14% by 2022. Thus, even when factoring in the reporting that occurs through broadcast media, the picture is quite bleak and growing bleaker by the day. 

Why do we care? Precisely because of Eric Lipton's fine reporting on the state attorney generals. We need great journalists to shine a light on government and business and keep them from misbehaving. Good journalists also uncover inefficiencies in government, and help consumers being mistreated by large companies who would otherwise ignore them. The explosion of blogs, data journalism, and new sites like Vox.com are no replacement for good local and state print reporting. 

I don't worry about coverage of Congress or the President ever becoming substandard. Those beats will always be sufficiently covered by the major national newspapers and broadcast outlets. What I worry about is coverage at lower levels of government. Corruption in state and local government that gets missed for far too long because there are so few reporters covering city hall and the statehouse. Reporting like Eric Lipton's reporting, or the reporting of Inga Saffron that I highlighted in previous blogs. 

Additionally, the dearth of local reporters covering their state's members of Congress in Washington allows the billions of dollars in political ads that are blanketing the airwaves (anyone ready for the campaign ads to go away?) and ideologically driven media to define even veteran members of Congress.

In Robert Kaiser's fantastic Act of Congress, then-Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) lamented how charges against him took off in part because he no longer had local reporters covering him as he had early in his career who could provide better context and perspective. 

Reporters perform a critical public service and having knowledgeable, veteran reporters covering government aggressively at every level (and business) is essential to government functioning well. Anyone who doubts this premise ought to consider the ugly result in the NFL two years ago when the regular referees missed several games due to a labor dispute (anyone remember this play?) Journalists are the referees of politics and then some.  

Many may consider reporters to be superfluous in an era with smart phones shooting high definition video and twitter allowing citizens to serve as journalists of a sort. They may view newspapers to be anachronistic in a world in which twitter brings us the news in real time. Many may also lament the proliferation of horserace coverage, and storylines that seem to guide reporting irregardless of actual events on the ground. 

Yet, Lipton's piece, and countless others like it, show that newspapers provide much more than a play by play of what happened yesterday. Lipton's story likely took months to report and required work from two reporters and two researchers. Citizen journalists are far less equipped to provide in depth investigate reporting than they are footage of a senator sticking his foot in his mouth (yes, all politicians should assume that pretty much everything they say is being recorded).

They don't have the rolodex of good, seasoned reporters, nor do they have the time (or expense accounts) to pursue big, complicated stories. I've conducted two hundred and twenty-five interviews for my research, and as research is a critical component of my work, my research skills (and the resources available to me) are likely better than most. Yet, it takes far more effort for me to track down contact information for many people to whom I wish to speak than it would for a good reporter. 

Newspapers undoubtedly need to change to reflect the current realtime news environment in which we live. They need to focus on big, in depth reporting that most real time news providers cannot offer. They also need new business models to reflect the changes in society (perhaps selling some sort of digital pass that gets a consumer access to all of the newspapers they want to read for one reasonable fee?).

Yet, we as consumers must do our part as well. We must be willing to pay for good in depth reporting. We must demand that media companies stop curtailing good local and state political coverage, and good coverage of locally based companies. We must demand the end to the old adage in local broadcast news that if it bleeds it leads (i.e. that crime stories lead the local news). If local print coverage gets reduced, local broadcasters must pick up the slack. 

Perhaps it might be time to investigate the feasibility of allowing taxpayers to allocate a portion of their individual taxes into some sort of fund to benefit the newspaper industry (the fund would obviously need to be handled by an independent body to prevent government from having any coercive power over reporters). It might also be time for newspapers to begin fundraising drives, a la PBS, or something else that allows the public to own a piece of their local newspaper.

While these ideas would be complicated to carry out so long as newspapers remain owned by for profit corporations, newspapers are truly public trusts, and the public suffers as their quality diminishes. Right now, absent either a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court, or the unlikely passage of a constitutional amendment, the work of reporters like Eric Lipton, and more stringent disclosure laws represent our best hope for reducing the corrosive impact of money on politics.