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Newspaper Layoffs Take Their Toll on Local Investigative Reporting

Cuts Leave Newsrooms With Little Time for Stories That Dig Beneath the Surface

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Newspaper Layoffs Take Their Toll on Local Investigative Reporting
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At a Senate hearing on the future of newspapers in 2009, Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, under fire for using stories from other news outlets, was telling those assembled how her site was assembling its own team of investigative reporters.

But David Simon, who drew upon his experiences as a Baltimore newspaperman to produce the acclaimed series "The Wire," pointed out that beleaguered local and regional papers won't be replaced by websites like HuffPo that focus on glamorous national stories.

"The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing," said Simon, "is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of equilibrium."

"There's no glory in that kind of journalism, but that is the bedrock," he said, adding that without aggressive reporters keeping an eye on local authorities, "The next 10-15 years are going to be a halcyon era for corrupt politicians."

Two years later, Simon's words have proven prophetic. According to a new report by the Federal Communications Commission, the layoffs that gutted newsrooms in recent years have resulted in "stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little."

The report added: "The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism - going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy - is in some cases at risk."

A grim assessment. Yet while the digital literati chatter about the national media (will The New York Times paywall work? are aggregators innovators or thieves?) there seems to be precious little discussion of the fate of local newspapers and more specifically local investigative journalism, the bedrock of which Simon spoke.

Meanwhile, the blogs, social media and hyperlocal sites often heralded as saviors of the information age are doing little if anything to make up for what's been lost in local news, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study that said most substantive reporting still comes from newspapers.

That was echoed by the FCC report, which said: "An abundance of media outlets does not translate into an abundance of reporting. In many communities, there are now more outlets, but less local accountability reporting."

The facts as laid out by the FCC are disturbing:

• The Baltimore Sun produced 32 percent fewer stories in 2009 than in 1999 and 73 percent fewer than in 1991.

• In 2004, the Raleigh News & Observer had 250 employees; by February 2011, it had 103. Beats that lost reporters included: courts, schools, legal affairs, agriculture, environment, and state education.

• From 2003 to 2008, the number of statehouse reporters dropped by one-third, according to the American Journalism Review.

• Twenty-seven states have no Washington reporters, according to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The number of papers with bureaus covering the Capitol has dropped by about half since the mid-1980s.

Gadgets Galore but no Time to Dig

The result of such cutbacks? A new generation of reporters who, while armed with the latest high-tech gadgets, have little time for the kind of digging that holds the powerful accountable.

"They can describe the landscape, but they have less time to turn over rocks. They can convey what they see before their eyes - often better and faster than ever - but they have less time to discover the stories lurking in the shadows or to unearth the information that powerful institutions want to conceal," the report's authors wrote.

It's difficult to know what stories have gone unreported in short-staffed newsrooms, but the FCC study cites the example of Bell, California, where the city's chief administrative officer was drawing a salary of $787,637, and the police chief, $457,000. The Los Angeles Times broke the story in 2010 - winning a Pulitzer in the process - but the scandal had been brewing for at least five years, a period when no reporters regularly covered the city's government.

"Newsrooms across the country have fewer reporters these days and that's translating into less in-depth reporting," says David Herzog, a former investigative reporter at the Providence Journal who teaches computer-assisted reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism. "I fear you don't have a lot of local investigative reporting going on about things like public corruption."

Herzog lauds the rise of non-profit investigative sites like ProPublica, but says they simply aren't enough to make up for what's been lost locally.

"There has been a big focus on the big players in terms of national reporting, but I do think that local investigative reporting hasn't gotten the same amount of attention," he says. "That's a shame to me, because that's the kind of investigative reporting that's the most meaningful to people."

As an example, Herzog cites a series of stories the Providence Journal did on lead poisoning in Rhode Island children. The articles led to reforms by the state government.

"There's nothing like putting together a story about something that someone wants to keep a lid on," Herzog says. "It's public service, it's being able to serve our democracy."

But, he adds, such stories take time, the kind of time that just isn't there in newsrooms already stretched too thin.

"There's a great scene in 'All the President's Men' when it shows Woodward and Bernstein going through boxes and boxes of documents," Herzog says. "That captures what investigative reporting is all about - it's not glamorous, it's not quick, and it's not easy."

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