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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Who Will Cover State and Local Governments?

As some of you may know, Sen. John Kerry held a hearing yesterday about the future of newspapers, and it became something of a debate between traditional print journalists and online news aggregators (Arianne Huffington being there as the big symbol of the latter).
By all accounts, Kerry tried to hold a fair hearing, even though he was clearly motivated by the continuing near-death experiences of his hometown paper, the Boston Globe.
But probably the most interesting moment occurred when David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who is credited as being the creator of HBO’s show “The Wire,” sardonically observed:

The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance.

Simon’s quip reflects the oft-repeated suggestion that online journalism can’t possibly replicate the essential role played by newspapers in covering and policing state and local governments.
This argument was best expressed in a wonderfully-lucid article by Paul Starr that appeared in The New Republic in March. In Starr’s account, robust coverage of state and local politics and government by major newspapers was a luxury made possible by their monopoly positions and huge profits:

Insofar as newspapers have upheld a public-service vision, they have been engaged in cross-subsidy, using their profitable lines of business, such as the classifieds, to pay for news coverage that probably would have been hard to justify on a narrower view of return on investment. Especially in recent decades, when newspapers were cash cows, their owners could afford to pursue public-service journalism, and some of them did (others just milked their papers for all they were worth).

As profits have declined, so has coverage of state and local governments, and so far, says Starr, the internet has not supplied a substitute in the way that is has for other areas of reduced investment, like national and international news. Thus, the argument goes, we may be in for an era of increased corruption as governors, legislators, mayors and county commissioners evade journalistic scrutiny.
That all makes good sense, but the problem with this “watchdog” idea about traditional big-city regional papers is that many of the dogs have long been asleep. As Starr himself notes, some newspaper barons felt a civic obligation to cover state and local affairs, while others didn’t. Moreover, the corporate media chains that have bought up so many of the regional papers have rarely made good state and local coverage a priority, even as they inculcated a footloose attitude among their best reporters who moved “up the chain.” I’d have to say that in my home town of Atlanta, there have been long stretches of time over the last few decades, and long before the advent of online journalism, when coverage of state and local government by that city’s monopoly newspaper was so bad that it was arguably worse than nothing. Indeed, some regional papers have, ironically, improved their state-local coverage, or at least the quantity of it, in online editions because of their greater flexibility of the format.
None of these ruminations are intended to deny the genuine dilemma of how to finance journalism in the internet age beyond a handful of national newspapers. There may well be, as Starr implies, a built-in demand-side problem in that nobody’s willing to pay what state and local coverage actually costs. It’s a shame we can’t replicate the apparently successful business model of Politico, wherein a vast online readership is subsidized by crazy ads rates charged for access to a tiny but extremely influential print edition, but that’s a unique product of that unique city, Washington, DC.
But in looking clearly at the difficult future for journalism, we shouldn’t nourish too many myths about newspapers, or at least those that have never done a competent job of covering state and local matters. For one thing, the crisis in regional papers hasn’t necessarily afflicted the small suburban newspapers that hit millions of driveways every week, and that often provide strong local government coverage.
And as Matt Compton pointed out in a post here in March, the nonprofit model of financing online journalism is already showing some promise, as in the Center for Independent Media, which is supporting not only the up-and-coming Washington Independent, but online sites in five states. And there are all sorts of freelance folk around the country playing the state-and-local watchdog role, albeit on a shoestring and sometimes without respecting canons of High Journalism. I will assert that online journalists and bloggers (including the AJC’s excellent Jim Galloway) are probably providing better coverage of Georgia politics and government than anything I recall reading in the salad days of the Atlanta papers’ monopoly print edition.
So there’s certainly enough hope out there, and in many cities, enough of a longstanding vacuum, to avoid the conclusion that state and local politicians are going to get any more of a free ride from journalists than they’ve ever had.

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