Politics

Blackout

Big-city newspapers aren't telling citizens the things they need to know.
by | December 2006

It is hardly unusual for politicians to lash out at the local newspapers that cover them. But a few months ago, when Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis took aim at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he skipped the standard complaints about bias or sensationalism. Instead, he charged in his blog that staff cuts and other changes at the newspaper were hurting the city itself.

"The P-D's spotty and often inaccurate coverage of local, state, national, and international news has made opening the hometown newspaper a chore fewer and fewer St. Louisans are willing to face each morning," he wrote. "The paper's current struggling fiscal health and demoralized voice are drags on our own civic renaissance."

Slay's little diatribe occasioned pretty much the response you'd expect: A Post-Dispatch columnist remarked that the mayor seemed "tired and irritable"; the local journalism review speculated that Slay was unhappy with the paper's coverage of his troubled attempt to take control of the St. Louis School Board; the editor of the Post- Dispatch gibed, "I would hope, as the mayor, he has more important things to do than concern himself with the health of the Post- Dispatch."

Yet Slay isn't the only St. Louisan with important things to do who is concerned about the Post-Dispatch. Last spring, a group of local civic leaders and journalists turned a memorial service for a revered former editor of the newspaper into an impromptu forum on its decline. Former U.S. Senator Thomas F. Eagleton delivered a eulogy lamenting the paper's "dumbing down" over the past few years.

Nor, as it happens, is St. Louis the only place where civic leaders are expressing disquiet over the health of the local newspaper. A few weeks after Slay aired his feelings, a group of prominent Los Angeles residents made a local and national stir by raising a similar alarm. In a letter to the chairman of the board of the Tribune Co., the Chicago media conglomerate that owns the Los Angeles Times, 20 community leaders urged the company not to pursue further cuts to a newsroom that already had lost 260 reporters, editors and photographers and trimmed the space devoted to news.

"What is required here for our region to function well," they wrote, "is more--not less--news coverage, particularly of the civic, political and cultural life of the region. The Los Angeles Times simply cannot be allowed to shrink to the point that it becomes just another newspaper." The letter went on to suggest that if the Tribune Co. didn't feel it could do justice to Los Angeles, then it ought to consider putting the paper up for sale. "This is not a group that regularly stakes out positions and tries to get headlines," says Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, who was one of the letter's signatories. "But we think newspapers have a special public trust and a responsibility to serve the community."

FIGHTING THE MEAT AX

Newspaper editors and publishers have long been fond of using words such as "public trust" and "responsibility," of course, and within any newsroom the notion that robust newspapers are part of a region's civic and cultural infrastructure is hardly a revelation. But now, as the newspaper industry struggles with declining stock prices, pressure from corporate owners to slash costs, round after round of layoffs and buyouts, declining readership and devastating competition from other media, civic leaders who used to treat newspapering as solely the newspaper's business are starting to believe otherwise. In Los Angeles and St. Louis, as well as in Akron, Hartford, Baltimore and an increasing number of other communities, a line is being drawn between corporate decision making and the role the newspaper plays in civic life.

"One of the things I think is still true but has been totally forgotten by the people who have been buying, trading and owning newspapers as assets in a portfolio," says Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "is that newspapers are one of the four or five institutions in a community that help the community define itself. We're part of the civic glue. We're the place where the community thinks out loud."

Even as the cutbacks are raising alarm, two developments raise at least the hope that vigorous journalism focused on local affairs may be able to mount a comeback in places where it is threatened or has already eroded. The first is the willingness of deep-pocketed private investors to consider buying papers and returning them to local control. The second is the emergence of Web sites in several cities devoted to old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting and informed commentary.

The most important experiment in return to local ownership is the one underway in Philadelphia, where public relations mogul Brian Tierney and home builder Bruce Toll bought both the city's dailies, the Inquirer and the Daily News, after the Knight-Ridder chain folded earlier this year. The new owners have made it clear they aren't planning to embark on a dramatic editorial expansion; recently, they announced that falling revenues would force them to make cuts both to staff and operations.

But even in a climate of relative austerity, there is some optimism that local owners may prove better able to publish a paper reflecting the needs and interests of the city. As Satullo puts it, "We're now owned by a bunch of people who live in Philadelphia, whose businesses rise and fall on the health of Philadelphia, who go to the shore in the summer and root for the Phillies, and who get our community in a way that people who lived in San Jose (where Knight-Ridder was headquartered) will never get."

Meanwhile, on the Internet, upstarts such as the voiceofsandiego.org and the online New Haven Independent are bringing renewed journalistic focus to city government, neighborhood affairs and the broad issues that affect life in their communities. These Web-based efforts have become a daily--if not hourly--part of the reading habits both of political and civic leaders and of ordinary citizens, demonstrating that there remains a measurable hunger for what more traditional newspapers once provided: breaking local news, knowledgeable perspective on political and community events, and a deeply rooted connection to the places they cover.

DISTURBING NUMBERS

Amid all the uncertainty about how newspapers will navigate the next few years, one thing is plain: The trends shaking the industry are neither temporary nor superficial. Circulation declines are a fact of life: 8 percent over six months at the Los Angeles Times; 5 percent at the San Francisco Chronicle; almost 7 percent at the Boston Globe.

The wounds of shrinking readership may in some cases be self- inflicted--if papers no longer provide information people care about, or become "so bad and feckless they become irrelevant," as former Post-Dispatch reporter Bob Duffy puts it, readers are going to lose interest. But the loss of readers is also generational. "Our younger city employees don't read the newspaper," says David Lieberth, chief of staff to Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic and a former radio journalist. "I'll be in a meeting with 10 people and say, 'You saw the stories in today's Beacon?' and everyone says, 'No.'"

At the same time that reading habits are changing, Web and print outlets that slice the audience into ever-finer segments are competing for advertising dollars and undermining the classified advertising revenue base on which big-city newspapers have depended.

In order to attract investors in this uninspiring business climate, corporate managers are demanding high profit margins, which means that flat or declining revenues have to be offset by lower expenses. "It's pretty clear this isn't cyclical," says Rick Edmonds, who follows the newspaper industry at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school and think tank for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida (and the parent institution of Governing magazine). "These are changes that are not going to stop. The old model is pretty much in the early stages of deteriorating."

And so newspapers are shrinking. Over the past five years, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, paid-circulation dailies have shed 2,800 journalists, 600 of them in 2005 alone. While the figures for 2006 haven't been compiled yet, the trend--more than 100 reporters and editors cut by newsroom buyouts at the Dallas Morning News; a quarter of the editorial staff at the Akron Beacon Journal laid off by its new Canadian owner; 40 newsroom jobs on the line in San Jose; 22 newsroom staff gone at an already-gaunt New Haven Register--shows no sign of abating.

Those large numbers suggest only the scale of the shift, not its import. For that, you have to look at specific changes--the five reporters the Inquirer once assigned to city hall, versus the two who are now there; the five or six who covered community and neighborhood beats on any of various metropolitan dailies, versus the one or two who do it now; the suburban bureaus that once were full-fledged little newsrooms, versus the handful of reporters who now try to do justice to a sprawling, complex territory.

NOBODY'S WATCHING

Numbers aren't everything, but they do matter. Zack Stalberg, a former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News who now runs the Committee of Seventy, a government reform group, remembers that when he covered city hall in the 1970s, there were 38 reporters, print and broadcast, sitting across the hall from the mayor. "The max today," he says, "is probably six or seven. So there's a big difference between when the mayor walks in to a press conference and there are 25 people there and when there's three. And when you get down to the head of licenses and inspections, if that guy feels there isn't anyone watching, there's a good reason: There's nobody watching."

To many journalists, the cost of absent bodies and of a single reporter trying to do the work of three or four lies in the watchdog stories that don't get told. In its final years, Knight-Ridder slashed mercilessly into the staffs of the Inquirer and Daily News. "We don't know what we didn't write about," says Mary Flannery, who worked for both newspapers and is now at the Chamber of Commerce. "We don't know all the different kinds of investigations--people calling up and saying, 'You should really be looking into this or that'--that didn't get looked into. Nobody knows what's been missed."

To be sure, papers with a solid core of experienced reporters can still mount attention-getting investigations. The Hartford Courant, for instance, did much of the work looking into gifts and free vacations given to former Governor John Rowland by contractors and others doing business with the state; Rowland eventually was forced to resign and went to prison as a result of the revelations. Since then, the paper has lost about a quarter of its staff. Even so, says Tom Condon, a veteran columnist at the Courant who now edits its weekly "Place" section, "we could still do what we did with Rowland, because the three or four main people who did it are still here. But what I'm beginning to see is you'd get that story, but we might not get the four other ones we'd also have gotten 10 years ago."

INCOMPLETE PICTURE

It is the loss of those other stories, and the nuanced view of community life they offered, that particularly troubles political and civic leaders. In Akron, where the Beacon Journal used to give unstinting coverage to community affairs, city government is now covered only sporadically, with drama substituting for amplitude. "In the absence of having coverage on a daily basis, people seem more suspicious of government," says Lieberth. "When people read only about conflicts, when television news only comes to the city to cover the murders or because the city council is going to explode that night into a shouting match with the mayor, if that's all they're seeing, then it's an incomplete picture of city government, and people think all we are is dishonest and confrontational."

The effects of these newsroom cutbacks are multiplied because, even with a declining readership, print news remains the bedrock on which other forms of news depend. Television reporting, radio commentary, blogs--with few exceptions, their agendas are set by what appears in the paper. "People go on Google or Yahoo and do a search and get a lot of interesting information and think, 'What do I need the newspaper for?'" says John Carroll, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times. "But the paper is the primary supplier of that information--Google and Yahoo don't have reporters. The paper produces 80 or 90 percent of the news, and the new media recycle it." In many cities, at the rate things are going, there may soon be little left to recycle.

If the people who live in a community are going to understand the way city hall or the county commission or the school board shapes their lives, they need journalism that is there for the long haul and not just the occasional shout in the dark. They need skepticism about the claims of developers but also analysis of how a land-use proposal might change a city's dynamics for the better; hard-nosed reporting about waste and fraud but also the ability to recognize when a new budgeting system has helped city departments make more effective use of scant resources; stories about crime and the darker side of city life but equally dramatic stories about neighborhood life and promising efforts to improve it.

This is perhaps most vital in cities that are struggling desperately to remain afloat. And it lies at the root of Mayor Slay's complaint about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch--that the downsized newspaper is giving short shrift to the region's attempts at recovery. "Look," says Jeff Rainford, the mayor's chief of staff, "the city of St. Louis was in decline for about five decades. So the attitude in the region has been that the city is something to get away from. But if you're trying to create a sense that a city is something you come to, then if the paper only covers the same old bad stuff it reinforces a sense that it's the same old city. When you don't cover the individual successes and the renaissance of the city, it makes our job more difficult." Indeed, it was the New York Times, not the Post-Dispatch, that published a recent story headlined, "Meet Me in Revitalized Downtown St. Louis."

Adam Goodman, the assistant managing editor of metro news at the Post-Dispatch, thinks these complaints are overblown. "To say that we only cover the negative just is not true," he says. "Overall, our coverage has been very fair and very balanced." On the other hand, a group of former Post-Dispatch reporters, dispirited by what they see in the newspaper now, has set out to launch an online competitor that would give more consistent attention to municipal government, the schools, development issues and the city's potential for growth. "Rather than being resigned to collapse and pessimistic about it, we want to say that in understanding it all better you can move forward," says Bob Duffy, one member of the group. "That was the traditional role of the Post-Dispatch: It took on urban blight, it took on bad air, it took on school problems, and things happened. But that spirit, the assumption that the newspaper is one of the columns that helps hold up the building, is gone."

L.A. MANIFESTO

It was a similar concern about coverage in the Los Angeles Times that motivated civic leaders there to write what amounted to a manifesto on journalism in the city. The group, which included John Mack, who chairs the city's police commission; former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher; and United Way President Elise Buik, shared a feeling that under Tribune management the Times had lost its ability to cover the region well and that further cuts would enfeeble the one entity able to tie the vast, diverse Los Angeles Basin together. "These are people who are active on committees, who help chair the political campaigns, who are the do-gooders, and they've become increasingly unhappy with the quality of local reporting in the Times," says Kevin Roderick, a former Times reporter and editor who now runs LAObserved.com, a Web site devoted to covering the local media and community affairs. "It has to do with the savviness level of reporting, a sense that local coverage has become much more surface- oriented and not grounded in expertise."

One of the unstated messages of the Los Angeles manifesto was that people who have a hand in shaping community affairs want some consideration in the newspaper's management decisions. But there was a second unstated message: that local owners could create a paper with a better understanding of local affairs. "We'd like to have an ownership structure and a paper that understand and appreciate the complexity and fascination of this region as it involves itself in the world, " says David Abel, a prominent businessman and publisher.

COSTS OF MONOPOLY

You can make an argument that the decline of local news began long ago, in the wave of consolidations and buyouts that turned many cities into one-newspaper towns. "In a competitive market, you've got two newspapers with a big interest in keeping people intrigued by local events," says Jim Schutze, a columnist for the Dallas Observer, an alternative weekly. "It takes a lot of ingenuity to make city hall interesting, and that only happened in a competitive market, where the goal was always to have people talking about the paper in checkout lanes and around swimming pools. When they go monopoly, they get pompous and boring."

That seems to have been the problem in San Diego, where the Union- Tribune, the city's only major daily, essentially slumbered while one of the biggest municipal scandals in recent memory unfolded. The scandal included massive underfunding of the city's pension reserves, chronic overstating of assets and general budgetary malfeasance that cost a mayor his job in 2005. The newspaper, which over the years had cut its city hall coverage to the bone, barely stirred itself. "I am convinced that one of the reasons the financial crisis happened was because the Union-Tribune was not serving as a watchdog," says Carl DeMaio, who runs the libertarian-oriented Performance Institute, which did much of the work that uncovered San Diego's problems. "It was not checking statements by city hall and was not aggressive in checking a lot of indications of wrongdoing. It was supposed to be the city's watchdog and instead was its lapdog."

Things are changing in San Diego, in part because the newspaper was embarrassed and has beefed up its investigative reporting, but mostly because a longtime Union-Tribune columnist who'd been fired from his job joined with a local philanthropist and a couple of reporters from the business weekly in town to set up voiceofsandiego.org, a nonprofit online newspaper. The voice now has six reporters and editors and routinely beats every other news outlet in the region to meaty stories. "As one of our sources says, it's always been a big happy beach party here," says Andrew Donohue, one of the site's two co- editors. "There hasn't been tough reporting or critical thinking in the press here for a long time. When someone kicks the ball, the rest of the media run to it, so we've been the ones trying to kick the ball."

On a wide range of stories, from revelations about bad investments by the San Diego County pension fund to an investigation of misdoings at an affordable housing agency to ongoing coverage of city council meetings and development proposals, the voice has resuscitated not only news about government but also San Diego's public conversation. "It has far more impact on what goes on in San Diego today than the Union-Tribune," says DeMaio. "There is no opinion leader in San Diego who doesn't check out the voice twice a day. So it starts the echo chamber of what they talk about, and then that's picked up by the traditional press."

The New Haven Independent, also a nonprofit, has created a different model. It has pursued hard-news stories with an impact on city affairs, but editor Paul Bass believes it is his site's ability to create a "civic conversation" that is most valuable. Using particular stories--the murder of two 13-year-old boys in an inner-city neighborhood, or the refusal by a local public-school student to attend school as long as he is subject to its search procedures--the Independent has become the place where poor people from a violence- torn central-city block and affluent residents of the suburbs can come together and weigh in on city affairs.

There is no question that online "newspapers" will grow in number, scope and resources, and in doing so they may well resuscitate the civic impact of local journalism, not only by spurring existing newspapers to do better but also by creating a day when, as Bass puts it, "communities have several sources of news again." If that does happen, it will be a change of enormous importance to urban life in the 21st century.

Jim Sleeper, a longtime newspaper columnist in New York City who now teaches political science at Yale University, says, "Newspapers--on paper or online--should be a forum that, thanks to what good reporters do and to the opinion page, enriches the give and take of public life in a way that accustoms people to dealing with each other as citizens." It's a fancy way of putting it, but as civic leaders in St. Louis, Los Angeles and elsewhere will tell you, a city feels it when it's gone.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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