Time to Get Your Clark Kent On?

As everyone knows, the newspaper industry certainly isn’t what it used to be. Print circulation numbers across the board are dramatically down; ad revenues have crashed.

Here is the opening paragraph of the summary of the Congressional Research Service’s The U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition, published in September 9, 2010:

The U.S. newspaper industry is suffering through what could be its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Advertising revenues have plummeted due in part to the severe economic downturn, while readership habits have changed as consumers turn to the Internet for free news and information. Some major newspaper chains are burdened by heavy debt loads. Between 2008 and early 2010, eight major newspaper chains declared bankruptcy, several big city papers shut down, and many laid off reporters and editors, imposed pay reductions, cut the size of the physical newspaper, or turned to Web-only publication.

This graph (originally published at The Awl) pretty much tells the story:


One of the primary effects of this decline in newspapers’ fortunes is that papers are now trying to do the same job with significantly less staff. According to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2011, newspaper newsrooms are 30% smaller than in 2000.

What this most often means in practical terms is that newspapers are now devoting significantly less resources to the coverage of local politics. It’s a lot less expensive to run a wire service story or report on a local crime (the “details” of which are simply lifted from official police releases), than it is to pay a journalist to sit through and then write a decent story of a city council meeting. Newspapers simply no longer have the resources necessary for the proper coverage of city hall.

Last month The Los Angeles Times ran a story entitled, FCC Report on Media Warns of Decline in Local News Coverage. In part the article reads:

A new report from the Federal Communications Commission warned that the “independent watchdog function that the founding fathers envisioned for journalism” is at risk in local communities across the country.

In a 475-page report released this week titled “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age,” the government regulatory agency — which watches over television, radio and certain aspects of the Internet — said there was a “shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting” that could lead to “more government waste, more local corruption,” “less effective schools” and other problems. … FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement released with the report, “The less quality reporting we have, the less likely we are to learn about government misdeeds.”

That final point is well taken; this is an increasingly great time time to be a crooked politician. No more snooping reporters asking bothersome questions about expense accounts and behind-door meetings. No more impertinent requests for public records. No more “public watchdogs” sniffing around city hall, digging into corners where they might unearth meaty bones best left buried.

We hear much talk these days about “citizen journalists.” And it’s good that we do; in some very real ways, citizen journalists are the only journalists left. The big dailies aren’t covering city hall anymore. So if you want city hall covered, you have to cover it yourself. And who better to do that than you and citizens like you? Nobody cares about local politics like local citizens. Nobody can. The adage is true for a reason; all politics is local.

If you’re a blogger, start sitting in on, and writing about, city council meetings. Get to know who’s who in your local city government. Get on the email lists coming out your city and county’s primary government offices. Show up at press conferences. Attend public forums. Raise questions. Insist on explanations. Request private meetings. Help the people who work for the office of the mayor and other local public officials to remember that they work for you and people just like you. Help restore the balance of power between the local citizenry and the people who were elected to represent them.

And don’t go it alone, either. That’s too difficult; there’s too much ground to cover. Instead, reach out to your fellow informed local bloggers. Join or form a coalition of local politico bloggers such that, after awhile, your group becomes the go-to place for people in your area wanting to understand what’s really happening with their tax dollars and local resources.

Be thorough; be precise; be professional; work in coordination with others. And stay at it. You’ll get the results you’re after. You will force politicians and government officials to be as accountable as they should be. You’ll provide an invaluable service to your community.

You’ll make a difference.

The fourth estate isn’t dead. It’s just got a whole new set of offices. And one of the best of those offices could be as near as your kitchen table.

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  • Great post John! Having worked in media and journalism for a long time I find it is sad that we have so few people actually following what those who are elected (and also those who work for them) are doing on all levels. Local, regional, and upwards. If we, the people who pay for their positions with our dollars and votes, will not hold them accountable then they will, like naughty children get away with whatever they can.

    I have found as an advocate in a particular field (animal welfare and agriculture) there is a deep reluctance to dig deeper, and a reluctance to ask the hard questions. I ask them, I pursue them but have found that unless there is more than one voice (as you suggested) there is too much to cover, too much to tell and it’s too much for a single voice.

    The day in which we choose to take back our right to accountability will be a hard one because those who have learned to pat us on the heads with a press release will not want anyone looking in the shadowy places for the creepy things they are hiding away. No one likes a bright light in their corners but someone has to shine it or we’ll all end up in the dark!

  • Very good, Shanyn. Excellent.

  • Rebecca

    Only recently did I find out your background in journalism and publishing, John, and that explains the insight displayed in this column. For almost twenty years, I was married to a journalist who worked at small weekly papers in Mississippi, and lots of my time was spent in city council meetings, school board meetings and so forth. Not only does it give you a better perspective on what exactly is going on in your town, it makes it more difficult for local officials to fiddle while Rome burns. All politics *is* local, and we each have a duty to participate in, not just bitch about, our local government. Otherwise, we truly do get the government we deserve.

  • tavdy79

    If you think the state of US newspapers is bad, you should check out the British ones. Bear in mind the “independent watchdog function that the founding fathers envisioned for journalism” when you read this:

    The News of the World (NotW) is a major UK daily which, alongside the Sun, makes up News Group, a subsidiary of News International, owned by News Corporation, which also owns all or part of Fox, Sky, the National Geographic channels, the Times of London, Wall Street Journal, HarperCollins, Zondervan, and others. NewsCorp is currently bidding to increase its plurality stake in Sky to a majority stake, to which there is massive opposition within the UK. This opposition has just increased tenfold virtually overnight, however.

    Two weeks ago Levi Bellfield was convicted of the murder of Milly Dowler, a thirteen year old girl who went missing in early 2002 and was found dead six months later. Bellfield had already been convicted of two other murders that occurred after Milly’s death, in 2003 (Marsha McDonnell) and 2004 (Amelie Delagrange) plus an attempted murder in 2004 (Kate Sheedy) and is believed to have been responsible for several other murders both before and after the murder of Milly Dowler.

    Following Bellfield’s conviction, it has come to light that Milly Dowler was one of the many victims of the NotW phone hacking scandal. Previously most of those known to have been targetted by by the NotW’s phone hackers were high-profile public figures, including senior politicians, members of the royal family, sports stars, high-profile actresses, business figures and even senior journalists at rival papers. Until this point the phone hacking scandal was an interesting bit of drama, but no more than that.

    However the NotW’s involvement in the Milly Dowler case went one step further than simply listening to her voicemail: when her voicemail became full they deleted voicemails so more could be recorded. This lead both the police and her family to believe that Milly was still alive when she was already dead, which meant the police were searching for a missing girl rather than investigating a potential murder, which could have allowed Bellfield to avoid capture. As noted above, Bellfield then went on to kill at least two more times.

    NotW had to have been aware that this was a possible consequence of their actions, yet they deleted the messages anyway. The result was front page news. NotW were willing to endanger people’s lives simply to get a story.

    Then yesterday it came to light that NotW also hacked into phones belonging to victims of the 7/7 bombs and their families. So much for the press being an “independent watchdog”!

  • John has been great at reminding me that you HAVE to decide if you want to 1) be popular, well liked, have people worship you and buy into whatever product your selling OR 1) Tell the friggin’ truth and let the chips lie where they may. (Think Jay Leno vs Lenny Bruce) You cannot do both. As I have learned these past two years the hard way, people you have known for years or even decades and considered to be friends will turn on you should your reporting impact whatever mini-empire they’ve created to push their products.

    This article in The Nation reminds me of the dangers of writers trading the truth for access to power


    Not only is it “too much” material for one voice to cover but it is also very difficult for one person to combat the corporate dollars expended to present a certain media spin. They can easily run a campaign to discredit you as this “crazy” person trying to destroy this amazing feel-good buzz that they’ve created to sell their stuff. For example, my ongoing efforts to expose the Family and their National Prayer Breakfast is met with such vicious responses even by seemingly passive progressives that it can throw me if I’m not careful.

    Also, these folks have deep pockets – they can and will threaten one with lawsuits and worse. (During my time with the Door, I got a few death threats from pro-life groups). That’s one reason why I prefer to post such stories at a place like Killing the Buddha where at least I feel some people have my back – these folks can be quite litigious and few folks have the resources on their own to go after them. That is an unfortunate reality and we all have to decide how far we’ll go here.

  • Interesting John.

    For the past three years I have been involved with community webblogging, and one of the things we covered were state and local politics. We were a volunteer staff of two or three, with occasional contributors, yet we gave an alternative voice to the local paper owned by a large conglomerate. Sadly we had zero funding, and often less time, and finally closed our internet doors this past spring. We had a following, and people miss what we did, but so far no one else has had the energy to take up the baton of doing real local coverage. I hope that it does again.

    I’ve thought about it, but with my own job and trying to pursue a college degree, time is something I had none of.

    So for anyone considering alternative news sources..I mean real news, not the shopping guide stuff that is all ads and mini sermons from local pastors, then open up a blog, and start. YOu’d be surprised how many in your community are interested in what is happening around town.