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The role of newspapers in civic honesty

September 29, 2009

In a lovely display of social networking, I ran across a transcript of a talk by Clay Shirky at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. I had seen a tweet, followed the link to the tweeter’s blog, left a comment, and he mentioned the talk in a reply to my comment. I loves me these intrawebs.

At any rate, Shirky’s talk is excellent and quite thought-provoking. He lays out the past and future of newspapers, and, as many do these days, thinks that the era of newspapers is pretty much coming to an end. Read the talk for the details; it is worth the time investment. I spent a large portion of the last semester arguing with one my classes about the fate of newspapers. What came out of those arguments was that we all agreed that there is a need for quality journalism, which Shirky calls accountability journalism, i.e.- journalism that acts as a check on the power of large entities. Wish I had had this transcript to use as required reading.

One point, however, on which I strongly disagree with Shirky, is that the loss of newspapers will mean that “[e]very town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption.” It is tempting to believe that he is correct and that these smaller newspapers do yeoman’s work in terms of keeping government honest. I struggle to see that that is actually the case. The context in which he said this is:

Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.

In my experience, smaller newspapers act as mouthpieces for the ruling elites, whether those be local governments, wealthy individuals, major employers, or some other key figures. Particularly in a smaller community, there is too much at stake in biting the hand that feeds you. The inelastic advertising market served by local papers means they need ad dollars from local businesses, and unlike in larger cities, they can’t afford to piss off their local version of Ford (to riff on Shirky’s example) because there is no local Chevy to fill the gap. With local politicians, it is a question of access. If they dig too hard, they will simply be shut out of key conversations. Last, but not least, most of these papers are owned by media conglomerates that have little patience for crusading reporters, but care dearly about the bottom line. All of this conspires to make the accountability journalism Shirky speaks of all but extinct in smaller cities.

Newspapers in larger cities have (or had) the resources to do investigative journalism, plus the legal teams to make sure that their reporters were not blocked out in the manner I just described. A journalist in a smaller city may well know his legal rights to information, but will have a difficult time asserting them in a hostile climate with no legal support.

This is likely why I have not sustained a subscription to a local newspaper for the last decade and a half. There is nothing in the paper but watered-down reporting–what happened at the city council meeting, basic local business news, etc.–but no journalism, i.e.- questioning, probing, connecting the dots of disparate information into a compelling narrative.  I can get that information through other channels these days, such as the people sitting in the back of the room tweeting the highlights in real time, and certainly do not need a paper to provide it.

Don’t get me wrong. As I said before, quality journalism is essential and will survive in some altered form, one can at least hope. It takes a lot of financial and legal muscle, however, to do this kind of journalism, and most smaller newspapers haven’t been up to the task for years, even before the advent of the Web and the loss of ad revenue.

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