Oh happy day! We finally have a new president. The winds of change have begun blowing through Washington, D.C. But how will we know what's happening?
With the arrival of the Obama administration, also comes another cold, hard fact. We will have far fewer reporters and news organizations covering this administration than the last. And, if you'll remember, the tepid reporting by corporate media during the Bush era was nothing to shout home about.
THE FALL OF MEDIA
Established media is collapsing before our eyes. The Cox news bureau in Washington, with 30 staffers, is shutting down. It publishes The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Austin American-Statesman and about 15 other newspapers. Advance Publications, parent of The Star-Ledger of Newark, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and others, has also shut down its Washington bureau. Twenty people were fired.
It goes on and on. The San Diego Union-Tribune recently closed its Washington bureau, letting go four people. Its parent company, Copley Press, once had an 11-person bureau in Washington. That's just the beginning.
Broadcasters should be filling this void, but they're not. They are cutting bureaus and staff as well. Many, including Washington's WUSA-TV, are converting to "one man bands," which is to say they are filling their schedule with skimpy "news lite" programming. Others continue to use corporate-provided video press releases to fill news slots. After Feb. 17, even less will happen on television.
And let's not forget a dirty little industry secret. Many broadcasters get their news by reading the daily newspaper. No newspaper, no local news. The handshake between the print and broadcast media industries has been there a long, long time.
Obama may be the luckiest politician alive. Not only did he run a charmed campaign for office, he may run the most "uncovered" administration in 50 years. Nothing like having a mostly spoon-fed group of "reporters" hanging around without the money to check out what you say or do the investigative reporting that every administration needs.
Already, since his campaign ended, far fewer reporters are traveling with the new president. Expect that number to get even smaller as time goes on and costs go up. More and more news reports will replicate the work of other reporters—giving the illusion of more news but in fact simply multiplying the original sources.
HANGING IN THERE
In this news void, however, there are some glimpses of innovation. A few news organizations—despite the poor economy—are actually adding staff. Some new Internet-only media is also filling the gap created by the loss of old media. In time, they will make their presence known.
The New York Times and Washington Post—two of America's best newspapers—are not cutting back in Washington. Both have severe financial problems, but are sticking it out as they do some great stories when expanding to video newsgathering and Web-based coverage. Let's hope they continue to do great work.
Politico, which started before the presidential campaign by hiring well-known reporters, is also now expanding its Washington staff. Recently teamed with Reuters, Politico is now offering stories to newspapers and broadcasters in exchange for selling ad space on the media client's Web site.
In September, the Politico Network was formed and it already has more then 60 newspapers and 40 broadcasters as clients. Politico is owned by Allbritton Communications, owner of a chain of TV stations (see "Allbritton's Multiple Platform Agenda," Sept. 17, 2008).
More traditional news organizations like CNN are attempting to build a wire service to compete with the Associated Press. And financial news services, like Bloomberg and Dow Jones, are also expanding coverage to general interest news.
Very promising is the resurgence of investigative reporting on the Web. One group—the VoiceofSanDiego.org—is doing high-quality investigative reporting no longer done by local newspapers or broadcasters. It has only 11 people, mostly young 30-something refugees from regular media outlets. But its work shines.
"Voice (of San Diego) is doing really significant work, driving the agenda on redevelopment and some other areas, putting local politicians and businesses on the hot seat," Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, told The New York Times. "I have them come into my classes, and I introduce them as, 'This is the future of journalism.'"
ProPublica also specializes in investigative journalism, while the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting looks into problems around the world. Similar investigative news organizations have opened in New Haven, Conn., the Twin Cities, Seattle, St. Louis and Chicago. Many more are organizing.
Though their costs are lower than print or broadcast journalism, this new breed of news organization cannot yet succeed on advertising alone. For that reason, most are nonprofit organizations that mimic public broadcasting stations. In addition to ad revenue, they find support from foundations, wealthy donors and audience contributions.
TRYING SOMETHING NEW
There are also some new delivery concepts being tried. Outside.In, a news startup headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., is using the Web and geographical tags—categorizing the location of news stories by city, neighborhood, intersection or street address.
This location-specific news can help large and small publishers bring news hounds the information they want on a "hyper-local" level. Another feature, called Radar, allows users to subscribe to news feeds by selecting their choice of neighborhoods or cities. And StoryMaps is a feature that allows publishers to chart their stories on a map. Users can then more easily search for those reports.
Outside.In has about two million visitors each month and has grown from 400,000 a year ago. An Outside.In application for Apple's iPhone will be available this month.
Another neat idea is that National Public Radio has introduced a new feature that allows its listeners to create a custom podcast on topics of personal interest. Type in "President Obama" or "Bob Dylan," and the user can sign up for a stream of NPR clips that match those keywords. Stories can be downloaded to any computer, smartphone or iPod.
The possibilities of this level of personalization trigger the imagination for future news coverage. Why not send video versions of the news—selected the same way—to personal video recorders or to Netflix boxes over the Internet. Then one can watch the selected stories on a television set without the narration of blow-dried anchors. Users could also download the selected stories to any portable device to watch when ready—anyplace or anytime.
Of course, all of the current delivery technologies will be rendered moot without good quality news reporting. The firing of the nation's best journalists by corporate news organizations does not signal much of a future for quality reporting.
The new generation of news personnel being hired at half the salary of the old and being told to do twice as much work will not offer the same quality of reporting—regardless of what the PR flacks for the corporate news organizations say. Viewers should recognize these cutbacks for what they are and say "No" to these news hustlers.
Sadly, with the exception of a few good news organizations like The New York Times and Washington Post, the future is being left to a new generation of Web-based journalists. May they succeed in their efforts and bring back journalism as it once was.
Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer. Visit his new blog at www.beachamjournal.com and his Web site at www.frankbeacham.com.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.