Black and white and read less and less

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Tim is quite right that newspapers aren't the same thing as journalism. The former can die even as the latter thrives. He is also right that there's been an explosion of Online news outlets, though to be fair many of them cannibalize the reportorial content of newspapers, itself paid for by print advertising.

I happen to prefer magazine writing and blogs to most, though not all, newspaper articles. And I am confident that national news, international news and commentary is going to get written whether newspapers survive or not.

But I am less sanguine about another part of the newspaper bundle: the part dedicated to local news.

As I've mentioned before, I got my start at an 80,000 circulation newspaper in Southern California that covered a dozen or so municipalities: Claremont, La Verne, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontanna, Chino, Chino Hills, Pomona, Diamond Bar, Norco, Ontario, Montclair and a few adjoining cities on occasion. One beat reporter was assigned to each municipality. My beat, Rancho Cucamonga, included 130,000 residents, a half dozen school districts, the Cucamonga Water District, a municipal redevelopment agency, a community college, assorted San Bernardino County government offices, a huge construction industry presence, etc.

Obviously I couldn't provide adequate oversight of all those different subsections of local government. It took quite awhile even to sift through all the campaign finance disclosure forms for members of the City Council, figure out various alliances and allegiances, understand which developers with business before the planning commission had funneled campaign contributions through shell limited liability corporations in order to confuse me...

The stuff I saw city officials do knowing that I was a particularly dedicated reporter watching them closely convinced me that during the many times when no one was watching -- for months before I got hired at that newspaper and months after I left, for example -- they were serving the public even less well.

I shudder to think what went on at the many government agencies I never had time to investigate in even the most cursory way.

Now that the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin has been ravaged by budget cuts some cities aren't getting covered nearly as well as the uneven treatment they got back in 2002 when I started. In its coverage area, there is a gang problem, transportation planning is a mess, political corruption is common -- it's the kind of place where a dedicated reporter can be guaranteed of helping to advance federal prosecutions, as my friend Will Matthews did, or prompting a recall effort against elected officials for breaking open meeting laws, as I did.

I understand that there are hyper-local blogs run by gadflies who can cover some of this stuff. But the institutional support of a newspaper, while not technically necessary for local coverage to thrive, is nevertheless very important. A financially healthy newspaper has some institutional memory, so that when the lone hyper-local blogger goes on vacation, or moves to a new neighborhood, or gets paid off by the local developer, someone is there to continue important coverage.

A healthy newspaper has an attorney on retainer so that when a powerful local threatens a frivolous liable suit if a controversial story runs, the story gets run -- I've known local news bloggers who uniformly didn't publish such stories when confronted, though they were in the right, because who wants to get sued over their blogging hobby?

A healthy newspaper bundles content that people want to read, like the score of last night's Lakers game, with content that few want to read -- the complicated story about the conflict of interest the city attorney has as he negotiates the retirement compensation of the fire union members, for example -- but that is useful to have in the newspaper because it forces elected officials to be more accountable.

Finally, no matter how dedicated a reporter you are, it isn't fun to sift through a 400 page planning commission agenda or search through an archive of property deeds 50 miles away at the county seat. People do these mundane tasks for pay, not as a hobby. One or two local blogs might attract enough advertising to support a half-time reporter, but none can support anything approaching the staff of a healthy newspaper.

As newspapers continue to lose money and layoff employees, the loss of local government watchdogs is what concerns me. I've been worried about this for awhile.

Because without local watchdogs you end up with this.