Last night I delievered a talk about news literacy to the Brockport Rotary Club. The talk soon became a discussion on the current state of journalism.
What struck me most about the concerns the members shared with me was this: They want real community news. The good and the bad. And they don’t think they are getting it.
Directly related to that, they also want watchdog reporting. What are they getting? Octomom.
While we read headlines saying newspapers are dying or already dead, these residents subscribe to newspapers — for now — but say they are getting too thin and don’t have enough local content. The online versions don’t provide them with much more than the print.
Why do I bring this up? Because as every day we hear about more and more newspapers cutting staffs or mandating furloughs, newspapers are doing the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they should be doing.
How on earth can newspapers provide more local content with fewer people? In the short term newspapers may be cutting costs, but in the long term they are killing the industry.
I try not to be a pessimist, but some days it is hard to see the silver lining in all this.
I read today about a conference aimed at “sustaining journalism.” A Critical Convening meets later this month is Washington. I only hope that conferences like this can generate concrete ideas — and not just talk — that can help save newspapers.
A few months ago I wrote about an initiative at the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY, to have a watchdog team tackle hard issues — a prospect I was skeptical about given the job cuts and mandated time off at Gannett, the D&C’s owner.
Today, however, I must admit a watchdog story by David Andreatta on the fact that some court documents in Monroe County are never filed (as they are supposed to be) and sometimes are seen by no one but the judge, even after the case is done, is a great watchdog story.
Is it a sexy story? No.
But is it one that matters? Yes.
It’s the kind of story that newspapers need to do. They need to hold public officials accountable. My only complaint about the story is that I wish it had been a little clearer about why the average citizen should care about this. It does try. Andreatta writes:
The rules demand that all documents considered by judges be filed with the court clerk.
Yet some court papers are never filed — and therefore unavailable to the public — because they are submitted directly to judges who return them to the parties when a decision is made.
I don’t know if the average person realizes the implications of this paperwork “oversight.” How are we, the public, to judge our judges if we don’t know how they are coming to their decisions? If we can’t see all the documents, how can we tell? How would we know if anything questionable or shady went on? We have no way to judge.
Sometimes, I think in the name of objectivity, journalists miss a great opportunity to inform our audience. With all that’s going on in today’s world, people don’t always have the time to connect the dots. I think journalists need to do that for them. That’s how we can take being a watchdog to a new level.
Romensko points out a fantastic new feature that will keep track of whether President-elect Obama keeps the promises he made. The Obameter at PolitiFact.com
says so far he’s lived up to two of his 510 promises. What a fantastic way to hold politicians accountable. Not only is it easy to read, but it’s a fabulous source of infomation that is easily searchable. Fantastic job, St. Petersburg Times.
After 59 jobs were cut, the Democrat and Chronicle has expanded its watchdog/investigative reporting team from two to three reporters. So says Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president of news at the Gannett paper.
She mentions budget challenges, but writes:
I truly believe we editors have a special calling. We have a mission like no other in serving our communities. No matter what the challenge is, we must uphold our First Amendment responsibilities by shining a light on things that would otherwise go unreported.
I applaud the commitment to watchdog journalism. I just hope they can do it. The Gannett job cuts have practical implications that cannot be ignored. Daily news still needs to get covered, yet fewer people are there to do it. And from what I’ve heard of the D&C job cuts, more experienced journalists were let go than less experienced journalists.
Godspeed, Karen Magnuson and the D&C’s watchdog team. I look forward to following this.