Can Anyone Replace the Local Beat Reporter?

Conor Friedersdorf

I'd like to repeat a story I sometimes tell about the importance of local journalism. It begins in 2003, when I worked as the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin's beat reporter for Rancho Cucamonga (population 150,000), an affluent commuter suburb about an hour east of downtown Los Angeles.

I broke all sorts of news that the LA Times reporter with whom I competed missed, largely due to my willingness to complete some rather tedious tasks: I attended every city council and planning commission meeting; pored over every campaign finance report, trying my best to trace donations back through limited liability corporations; read through all city ordinances and contracts until I understood them; and filed all sorts of public record requests for documents like cell phone records, expense reports filed by city officials, and e-mails sent from municipal accounts.

The story I want to tell is about another Southern California municipality, the city of Lynwood. It's population is about 70,000 people, spread over five square miles perhaps 20 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles, and just north of Compton. Circa 2003 the average resident earned about $9,500 per year, and city council members earned about the same -- at least that was their official salary.

Their unofficial compensation came to Southern California's attention on September 15, 2003, when the Los Angeles Times published a front page story that began as follows:

Lynwood has an annual per capita income of only $9,500, but its elected leaders are among the best-paid part-time politicians in California. A majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes; lavish foreign travel and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment, including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janeiro.
Travel and credit card expenses by the five-member council have cost taxpayers more than $600,000 over the last five years, records show, and include city-paid trips to Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. Council members Louis Byrd and Paul Richards have each made more than 25 out-of-town trips in the last two years...
The council jobs pay annual salaries of $9,600, but three members - Byrd, Richards and Arturo Reyes - each earned more than $100,000 in 2000 and 2001, city records show.

Beyond the arresting figures, the story fascinated me at the time because I figured, were any municipal beat reporter making even a halfhearted effort at doing his job, this abuse of public trust never could have gone unnoticed. The graft in the paragraphs above were detailed in public documents! I'd certainly know if that sort of thing were going on in Rancho Cucamonga, I thought, and here I am a year out of college, without any formal training into how to be a reporter. What gives?

So I contacted the reporter who broke the story, Richard Marosi, to get more information. A talented investigator, his beat included 10 municipalities in an area of Los Angeles County that is rife with political corruption. "Right now most of these politicians are behaving because they saw what happened with the recall in Southgate," he said, referencing the ouster of officials in a nearby city. "But we'd never been in Lynwood reporting from City Hall before, and I didn't have the time to look into there until I did the investigation."

My argument here isn't that Southern California is best served by a behemoth Los Angeles Times that is the newspaper of record everywhere in the region. The newspaper's most dominant days often under-served the poor communities of South Los Angeles, where the residents buy newspapers far less frequently than richer Angelenos, and are far less valuable to advertisers. Even so, I know of no government watchdog more effective than newspapers that employ people like Richard Marosi, assigning them to local government beats, where they can break corruption stories and watch closely enough that more local officials eschew graft for fear of getting caught.

Can local bloggers fill the breach? The answer is as yet unknown. I've witnessed impressive work done by unpaid citizens well versed enough in public records laws and California's Brown Act to do valuable work.

On the other hand, let's look back at that initial Richard Marosi story.

Lynwood's generous pay has evolved through a combination of voter apathy, scant media scrutiny and limited access to City Hall records, residents and political observers say. Residents complain that they cannot keep track of how much their elected officials are earning or when they are traveling at taxpayer expense. Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker, had to file a lawsuit and wait two years to see city credit card records and council earnings information.

Let's expound on the difference between Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times reporter, acting as a government watchdog, and Miguel Figueroa, a lampshade maker, trying to do the same thing. Consider the task of getting the credit card bills that document graft in Lynwood. They are public records: state law mandates that the city turn them over to anyone who asks.

But a newspaper reporter has the time a lampshade maker doesn't to go down to city hall during business hours; if the City Clerk wants to charge for photocopies, the reporter can expense it to the newspaper, whereas the lampshade maker pays out of pocket; should the City Clerk refuses to hand over the documents, the reporter can have an attorney at the newspaper draft a convincing letter, and write an article in the newspaper hammering the city for breaking the law; should the city clerk dally further, the reporter can have an LA Times attorney sue the city, and write another scathing story; and if the lawsuit drags on, he can stick it out, though that is seldom necessary, because when your legal adversary is correct on the merits, buys ink by the barrel, and cultivates a reputation for sticking things out, you rarely put them to the test.

Miguel Figueroa did far more than most Southern California residents ever would merely by pursuing the matter -- it took him two years to get the credit card records. What did he do next? He called Richard Marosi, who launched an investigation, documenting enough abuses to sell his editors on a front page story, and creating enough of a public stir to take on the crooks in Lynwood. What would have happened if there weren't any LA Times reporter assigned to that beat?

The City Council of Lynwood, a tiny little municipality, easily wasted more than a million dollars in taxpayer money. A beat reporter competent to have stopped them could've been had for $60,000 per year; compared to the turn of the 21st century, when all this spectacular graft in Lynwood went unnoticed, there are hundreds fewer beat reporters working in the Los Angeles area.

Whether the answer is to save the LA Times, or to start some institution in its place, I cannot say, but being a conservative sort, loath to see the government accrue more power and grant less accountability to citizens, I'm sorry to see the Golden State's newspaper of record wane, and hopeful that it'll improbably rebound. How could I feel otherwise, absent any evidence that there is an alternative model that produces better results?

But I am pessimistic about the ability of a lot of newspapers to survive. So I'd like to suggest that, however you feel about newspapers, it's important that we generate ideas for replacing the local watchdog functions discussed in this post. Are there any readers who've observed viable replacements for the beat reporter in your community? Does anyone have ideas that are as yet untried?



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