The End of Local Reporting?

Much of the world of journalism has quite properly been focusing on the trials and tribulations of our great national newspapers—with the Washington Post’s self-inflicted wounds leading the pack. And it is easy to forget amid this obsession the importance of Tip O’Neil’s old adage: “All politics is local.”

True, local politics, like everything else, are not what they used to be. But the fact is that our political system—like our physical existence—still breaks down along geographical lines. And whether people care enough about local news to pay for it is, sadly, an entirely different question than whether our democracy requires a strong watchdog function at the local level to ensure safeguards against abuse, chicanery, and outright dishonesty. As the ex-journalist and impresario of “The Wire” David Simon observed when testifying before Congress about the death of the newspaper industry, “The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption.

And make no mistake, the news is bad. Erica Smith is tracking newspaper layoffs on a daily basis at Paper Cuts. She has recorded more than 11,546 layoffs and buyouts nationwide in 2009 alone. The Chapter Eleven status of The Tribune Company—owner of The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times among many others—is at the highest level of local coverage. The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy protection in January. And the owner of the The Philadelphia Inquirer went into bankruptcy in February. They will undoubtedly emerge smaller and weaker—the LA Times is already a shadow of its former self—but time is not on their side.

The clock already stopped ticking for the Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post back in 2007. The Albuquerque Tribune closed in February 2008. Capital Times (Madison, WI) ended its print operations in February 2008. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News closed in February. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased its printed operations in March. The Tucson Citizen printed its last edition in May. And the Claremont Eagle Times (New Hampshire) closed in July.

The sage journalism observer Alan Mutter recently wrote that any paper in a major city with two dailies is in tremendous trouble. The San Francisco Chronicle, to cut costs, began outsourcing all of its printing in July. It lost $1 million per week last year. In March, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News started delivering to subscribers only three days a week to save on printing and shipping. The Ann Arbor News has adapted to a twice-weekly schedule. The Seattle Times Company, the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Detroit News are all said to be at risk for bankruptcy according to the New York Times. And the Miami Herald and Chicago Sun-Times are up for sale, but no one is buying.

Lest one thinks that the only loss involved here are the livelihoods of a bunch of smug, elitist, know-it-all running-down-America “reality” types, we’ve actually seen a spate of exactly the kind of local reporting that our democracy depends on—the kind we can no longer take for granted as economic trends accelerate in the newspaper industry.

This month’s Nieman Reports sported a piece by Dave Savini, for example. Savini is a backpack reporter for CBS 2 Chicago who spearheaded their undercover investigation on rotting pork. Savini, clutching a video camera, tailed a driver as he loaded thousands of pounds of whole dripping pigs, yogurt, fruits, and vegetables into a truck with no refrigeration in 90-degree heat. The meat was destined for a restaurant 100 miles away in Wisconsin, but Savini finally found a food inspector and called the police just in the nick of time. After a slow-moving police car chase, the driver turned over the food, which was then destroyed. Savini and his team not only kept tainted meat off the market; they broke a number of larger stories about how, for example, the state of Illinois only had six inspectors available to examine food trucks and, as a result, rotting meat was being shipped illegally to restaurants in and out of state. Savini’s story has national implications for public health, but it never gained traction outside of Chicago.

And consider these recent stories from across the nation:

From the Des Moines Register: Plant Switches Coal, Fooling Air Monitors
“Leaders of several state environmental groups are worried that one of Iowa’s largest air polluters is deceiving state air monitors. Workers at the Grain Processing Corp. facility in Muscatine acknowledged last fall that they switch from burning high-sulfur coal to a low-sulfur variety when the wind blows toward a nearby sulfur-dioxide monitor, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources complaint investigation shows.” 

From the Columbus Dispatch: “Thieves Promise to Save Homes
“The name of the company sounded official: Federal Housing Aid. ‘I thought they were part of the government,’ said Theresa Holstein, 50, referring to the Las Vegas company that contacted her soon after she had knee-replacement surgery, lost her job and fell behind on her mortgage payments. The Columbus resident was desperate for a way to keep her home, so after being pressured for three days, she sent Federal Housing Aid a certified check for $1,000 and relied on its promise that the company would contact her lender and take care of everything. She never heard from the company again.”

From the Miami Herald: “Miami-Based Medicare Fraud Ring Busted
“Federal agents have dismantled a Miami-based ring they said schemed to defraud Medicare of $100 million by filing false claims for obsolete HIV therapy across five states—although two of the suspects who posed as clinic owners have fled to Cuba.”

From the Los Angeles Times: “Case of Autistic Marine Brings Recruiting Problems to the Forefront
“A few days after he arrived at boot camp here [in San Diego], Joshua Fry no longer wanted to be a Marine. He was confused by the orders drill instructors shouted at him. He was caught stealing peanut butter from the chow hall. He urinated in his canteen. He talked back to the drill instructors. He refused to shave. Finally, he set out toward the main gate as if to head home. He was blocked, but now he had the chance to tell his superiors a secret: He was autistic. Fry figured this admission would persuade the Marines to let him return to the group home in Irvine for disturbed young adults where he was living when he enlisted. Instead, he was sent back to Platoon 1021, Company B.”

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “Faculty Disclose Outside Payments
“At least 11 doctors with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health received more than $50,000 from drug or medical device companies last year, including seven who pulled in six-figure amounts, according to records obtained by the Journal Sentinel.”

You might not have been following the ups and downs of local news in Libby, Montana, but perhaps you (and I both) should have. The W.R. Grace Company operated a nearby vermiculite mine for 27 years that was contaminated with asbestos. Dust from the mine wreaked havoc on this 2,600-person town, killing 200 people and causing more than 1,000 of lung cancer and lung diseases. A criminal trial this spring charged W.R. Grace Company officials with knowingly letting this happen (they were, by the way, acquitted). The Libby case may represent one of the most important environmental criminal prosecutions in history, but it never got traction on the national stage. Columbia Journalism Review found just three brief stories at CNN— one for the trial, one for the acquittal, and one when the Obama administration allocated $130 million for emergency cleanup.

What this lack of national coverage reveals is an even more dire situation at the local and regional level. It’s not surprising that the best coverage of Libby occurred from 1999-2000 when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was, well, still a newspaper. Former P-I reporter Andrew Schneider chronicled the town’s struggle using Grace’s internal documents and memos, government records, and local interviews. His reporting eventually alerted the Environmental Protection Agency and brought national attention to the scandal.

So what happened this year? Criminal proceedings began this winter and Schneider was assigned to those as well. Yet when the P-I discontinued its print edition, Schneider left the paper along with most of his colleagues. He continued to write about Libby on his personal blog (which was eventually moved to coldtruth.com), but he lost his P-I readership base. Journalism and law students at the University of Montana luckily picked up some of the slack, providing live coverage of the trial via Twitter and their blog, “Grace Case.” Teams of two (one journalist and one lawyer) would rotate in and out of the courthouse in two-hour shifts, obsessively twittering and blogging.

Don’t get too happy about that. It’s unlikely that we can rely on obsessive, poorly paid bloggers (with day jobs) to step in and replace robust investigative reporting. And national traction for stories like these seems a far-fetched dream with news media resources dwindling at the local and regional levels.

According to the 2009 Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism “State of the Media” report, daily newspapers with non-national circulation are continuing to flounder. Big city metro papers like the Miami Herald, Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), Philadelphia Inquirer, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, just to name a few, experienced the biggest losses year-to-year. Only two out of the top 50 non-national papers in circulation experienced increases—the Cincinnati Enquirer, which saw a 0.5 percent increase after the Cincinnati Post closed, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which was up 0.4 percent.

New York University Professor Jay Rosen conducted an informal experiment in March at the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab. Rosen wrote: “Lots of people [are] asking, what’s going to replace newspapers if they can’t make it? Expecting amateurs to step in is dumb, and it won’t happen. But before we can face this matter of ‘replace’ head on we at least need some current numbers. Let’s find out what the printed newspaper on the local level has been able to deliver recently, so we know in rough, round terms what we have to replace…. First step: how many news stories… [are] people getting?” Rosen asked his readers to count the number of “homegrown” (ie. not syndicated or wire) stories in their local newspapers. Reader posted their results. There was a distinct trend: The news numbers were low. Apparently there wouldn’t be much news to “replace.”

Propublica, the much-heralded experiment in non-profit investigative journalism, headed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and based in New York has stepped into the breach. Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten began digging into a story in the summer of 2008 about natural gas drilling in upstate New York. Over a year, Lustgarten’s dogged coverage revealed that hydraulic fracturing, used in nine out of 10 gas wells drilled in the United States, was polluting the water supply — sometimes with Methane, which could literally lead to flammable water.

Propublica offered these stories free of charge to local newspapers and bloggers through Creative Commons and Lustgarten’s continual reporting eventually attracted congressional attention. The Senate and House introduced two standalone bills for the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. The FRAC Act is currently pending in Congress—Propublica is still on the story. Lustgarten wrote a piece for this month’s Nieman Report, as well, praising his editor’s decision to allow him seemingly unlimited time and resources to pursue the story to the very end—a luxury that local and regional news media cannot afford.

But one relatively modest investigative operation, no matter how committed, cannot possibly make up for the fact that that our democracy is founded on a foundation that is crumbling beneath us. It’s as much a concern as the long-term viability of the New York Times or Washington Post, and it’s time the rest of us started paying attention.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.