American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards

The Internet affords cheap, easy access to priceless information. But local news coverage is a casualty of its rise.
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Is the American news media in better shape than ever before? Matt Yglesias thinks so, despite constant declines in advertising revenue, reduced editorial budgets, and layoffs at newspapers and magazines.

"Almost anything you'd want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips," he explains, thanks to the speed, range, and depth of information the Internet provides. Take the financial crisis in Cyprus. "You can quickly and easily find coverage from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Economist," he notes. "Or if you don't want to see your Cyprus news filtered through an America/British lens, you can check out the take of distinguished Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis on his blog. Reuters created an interactive feature that lets you try out different formulae for making the Cypriot haircut work. A pseudonymous London-based fund manager using the name Pawel Morski has offered vital, deeply informed coverage on Twitter and his WordPress site. You can watch a Bloomberg TV interview on the situation with native Cypriot and former Federal Reserve adviser Athanasios Orphanides." 

In this telling, worrying over laid off journalists "confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare -- productivity." Are we not awash in good content? "Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors," he argues, "today's readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read. Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago?"

Every benefit cited in those passages and elsewhere in Yglesias's article are real and significant. If the news media's health is measured by how much high-quality content is available, the cost of consuming that content, or the amount of accurate, relevant information easily accessed on subjects as diverse as international finance, war, national politics, science, or technology, the web era has brought about all of the dramatic improvements that Yglesias claims.

But what if the news media is judged on these metrics: How well does it provide citizens the information they need to govern themselves? How effectively does it fulfill its role as a watchdog?

Judged accordingly, the verdict is a lot murkier.

That's because state, county, and local coverage almost everywhere in the United States is now significantly worse than it was in the pre-Internet era, when local newspapers enjoyed a virtual monopoly on classified advertising and invested part of the resulting largesse in local reporting.

As a curious person who enjoys learning about the world, the rich store of readily available information about Cyprus thrills me, but it does very little to help me better fulfill my civic obligations. Were I living in Rancho Cucamonga, California, a veteran city-hall reporter who improved my understanding of local affairs by just 10 percent would increase my civic utility far more than if I completely mastered the intricacies of events in Cyprus over which I have no influence.

This seems lost on the generation of political reporters who began their careers blogging about national politics, moved to Washington, D.C., and have only ever written for high-information news consumers intensely interested in national politics and policy. The work of wonks has real value, but it affects politics mostly by influencing a small group of elite insiders. A Seattle resident who reads Ezra Klein, Peter Suderman, and Avik Roy is bound to emerge with a very sophisticated understanding of health-care politics and policy, which may make him feel as if he is more meaningfully participating in American democracy. But from a civic-utilitarian perspective, it would make a lot more sense for him to spend his information-consumption time better informing himself on votes he is eligible to cast and problems he can influence. Casting a ballot for the best municipal officials and against the worst local initiatives may not enable him to debate health-care reform on Thanksgiving in as much detail, but it is more important.          

And local reporters don't "just" contribute by getting citizens civically useful information. A boring newspaper story about financial improprieties at the water district that almost no one reads or cares about can still have a huge impact so long as one of the few readers works in the county prosecutor's office. Local newspapers bankrolled and bundled a lot of civically important work that few people wanted to read with the sports page, the crossword puzzle, the comics, and the Sunday coupons. If you measure the quality of the news media by focusing on consumer utility, as Yglesias does, the civic value of publishing that material is totally missed. So is the value of having local-government officials who engage in less graft precisely because they know that a sophisticated observer is constantly watching them, ready to expose them if they break the law. 

It would be nice to think that citizen journalists could simply step into the breach, empowered by the tools the web provides. Perhaps that will occur in future years more than is now the case. But show me a local newspaper that has laid off a significant number of editors and beat reporters, and I'll show you a city where a lot of institutional knowledge, built at great cost over many years, was suddenly, perhaps irrevocably lost; where even skilled citizen journalists have a hard time filling the breach, because unlike local newspapers they aren't backed by an lawyer on retainer to sue when the city attorney won't fill the public records request, and they lack institutional heft to secure access to officials who can ignore Jane Blogger a lot more easily than a broadsheet that prints daily editorials, endorses candidates, and has institutional authority.

As I explained awhile back in City Journal, "The insight here isn't that newspapers are irreplaceable. Whether or not that's true, the fact is that cities like Ann Arbor, Michigan, have already seen their dailies shut down. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reports that in the last decade, 'American newsrooms have lost more than 25 percent of their full-time staffers, bringing the total of full-time journalists working in daily newsrooms to 41,500, a level not seen since the mid-1970s.' Among the 19,429 municipal governments in the United States, many will go without a capable journalistic watchdog. In short, the age of the newspaper is already over in enough places that the question is not whether they can be replaced, but how to replace them."

My article goes on to highlight several non-profits trying to do investigative work that is still journalist driven -- some rely on staffers, while others issue grants or commission freelance work.

I also suggest the possibility of an alternative to having journalists do this work:

Might it be possible to change the old model -- disaggregating investigation from journalism, and tapping as watchdogs folks who behave more like detectives or auditors than like reporters? As yet, I know of no nonprofit that has undertaken this approach. But a system of civic watchdogs regularly performing checks on every government entity -- rather than doing spot-checks based on tips and intuition -- certainly sounds appealing, at least in theory. And funding it privately might be less costly than it at first seems, at least in states like California, where the public is empowered to request most public documents.

Imagine, then, a how-to guide setting forth the basic steps that any interested watchdog should take to scrutinize a municipality, a school district, or a redevelopment agency. It could be posted on a website that included pages for every government entity in a state. Did someone just upload the campaign-finance disclosure forms for every member of the Santa Barbara City Council? Check that box. Is there a city in South Los Angeles where public officials' salaries have gone uninvestigated for three years? Send a roving volunteer there. Whenever nonprofit investigators or auditors uncovered corruption, eager journalists would still be just a phone call away. Call it watchdog by wiki.

Such an effort could be all-volunteer or run by a professional staff. It could fund training sessions in which investigative reporters would teach citizen-journalists how to act as watchdogs. It could partner with collegiate public-policy programs to build out the online databases of uncovered information. A higher-end version might even include an algorithm that automatically prioritized the tasks deserving immediate attention. Only one thing would be nonnegotiable: the lawyers. The nonprofit would need to acquire a reputation for suing any city that didn't comply with its volunteers' lawful requests.

We need journalistic watchdogs. Various nonprofits are trying to figure out how best to subsidize their work, and more power to them. But it's worth considering that not all privately initiated government scrutiny need be conducted as journalism.

Until some entity is doing the work that local journalists aren't doing anymore, we're likely to see more instances of government waste and corruption, citizens who are more poorly informed about the government closest to them, and all the unpredictable dysfunction that entails. That's why, despite all the benefits of the web era that Yglesias identifies and that I join him in celebrating, he is too sanguine about the health of the news media compared to bygone years.

Much is better -- and much is worse.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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