A Federal Study Finds That Local Reporting Has Waned
By JEREMY W. PETERS and BRIAN STELTER
An explosion of online news sources in recent years has not produced a corresponding increase in reporting, particularly quality local reporting, a federal study of the media has found. Coverage of state governments and municipalities has receded at such an alarming pace that it has left government with more power than ever to set the agenda and have assertions unchallenged, concluded the study, which is to be released on Thursday.
“In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting,” said the study, which was ordered by the Federal Communications Commission and written by Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. “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 at the local level.”
On Thursday, Mr. Waldman is to issue a number of recommendations, none binding. Those include making actual in-the-field reporting a part of the curriculum at journalism schools, steering more government advertising money toward local instead of national media and changing the tax code to encourage donations to nonprofit media organizations. The report has relatively modest aims: to assess the health of the media industry in the United States and determine whether government policies that affect the industry are in sync in the digital age. The report’s findings, while often self-evident, painted a dim portrait of local media.
“Breathtaking media abundance lives side by side with serious shortages in reporting,” it said. “Communities benefit tremendously from many innovations brought by the Internet and simultaneously suffer from the dislocations caused by the seismic changes in media markets.”
Because those newspapers serve as tip sheets for local television reporters and for reporters on the national level, the cutbacks have had “ripple effects throughout the whole media system,” Mr. Waldman said. With fewer reporters available to tackle in-depth topics, news releases from politicians and policy makers end up having more influence in some cases, he said, contributing to a kind of power shift toward institutions and away from citizens. But Mr. Waldman came away thinking there is little that the federal government could do to change that. “A ban on press releases?” he joked.
In researching the report, he and his staff interviewed scores of journalists to develop a fuller picture of the state of media. What they found was sometimes alarming. At one newspaper Mr. Waldman visited in Tennessee, he recalled, he asked an editor about a list of story ideas that was posted in the newsroom.