Timothy Lee asks: What crisis in reporting?
Shirky is sometimes criticized for the rose-colored tint of his spectacles, but here I think he’s giving too much credence to the pessimistic conventional wisdom. It’s clear that newspapers are facing a crisis, and obviously if you’re a newspaper employee or shareholder you should be worried. But whether this is a problem for the broader society is far from clear.
The Internet is also reducing duplication of reporting effort. The 20th century newspaper industry had a lot of reporters covering identical beats in different cities. Obviously, each metro area needs its own reporters covering city hall. But a ton of stuff in the newspaper—technology and medicine, national business and politics, movie and book reviews—isn’t tied to any specific metropolitan area. As the Internet eliminates geographic boundaries, there’s no longer a good rationale for having so many people writing redundant content.
Like Lee, I’m not so worried about the future of Washington bureaus or arts desks. To the extent that there is a crisis, it’s not a federal one. The big problem, it seems, is on the state and municipal levels; and while Lee sort of offhandedly acknowledges that national coverage and local coverage are two different animals, I think he also downplays the scale of the reportage deficit in a lot of states and cities.
This American Journalism Review article from a couple years ago paints a pretty stark picture. There are a lot fewer expendable reporters on the state and city beats, yet we seem to be hemorrhaging them at a faster rate. That means fewer people trying to fill the same amount of column space, which means less room for reporters to do the sort of long-term investigative work that would prohibit them from pumping out copy on a daily basis. And while AJR does note that some new media projects have rushed into the vacuum, as of 2009 nobody really knew how to keep those endeavors funded in the long term. That may have changed since — I certainly hope so.
I’m particularly worried about under-covered state and local beats because state and local politics are where much of the really blatant and grotesque corruption in American government goes down. And when you zoom out a bit, that small-scale corruption and abuse of power helps, in no small part, to sustain systemic corruption at the federal level. The fewer reporters cleaning up this shit, the more it festers.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be worse in the long term — I’m not really a fatalist, at least when it comes to this specific topic. There are some really interesting experiments going on in hyperlocal reporting, like NYU’s own East Village Local, that could point the way towards sustainable small-scale journalism. It’s just not guaranteed that they’ll succeed. And until they do, we’ve got a problem on our hands. Maybe not a crisis, but definitely a problem.