A Parochial Press

There is still a robust press in Washington, reporting on the government in detail, says the Atlantic magazine a couple days ago. The problem is that it’s a trade press, focusing on the tiny aspects of policy in each publication’s area and ignoring larger issues. The author – John Heltman, a longtime reporter for The American Banker – knows this because he was part of it. Six years ago, when he was with the small Water Policy Report, a prominent commentator explained to him how insufficient regulation of oil drilling would soon lead to a disastrous spill. He was handed a perfect story predicting the Deepwater disaster – but he passed it up, because Water Policy Report‘s subscribers wouldn’t be immediately interested. And, far too much Washington reporting (though Heltman barely attempts to quantify how much) is like this.

This is a very valid point: reporting in general-interest newspapers has declined, while reporting in trade-specific publications has boomed. Heltman’s article attempts vaguely to tie the two together due to their happening at the same time, but I think there are more significant links. A much more likely cause for general newspapers’ decline is the Internet. Further, as former newspaper editor Fred Clark explains on his Slacktivist blog, daily newspapers’ response to the Internet was suicidal: in an attempt to cut costs and maintain volume of news, they cut both reporters and backroom staff, leaving the remaining reporters without time to focus on investigate stories in depth. Since superficial stories are exactly what can be gotten on the Internet, though, the daily newspaper continued to fail.

If we can judge by Heltman’s story, the trade press has taken the same deal: many quick stories inside its topic. However, the general Internet can’t substitute so easily for trade topics as it can for general news. Bloggers will gladly swarm over details of the Paris bombing or the newborn British prince or similar stories; you won’t get many blog reports on the latest change in farm legislation. Plus, businesses who have hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on the details of government action want reliable news; they can’t depend on the gradual, sporadic error-correction of the Internet. General news can be inaccurate; the general public will rage but forget, and still not be willing to pay real money for more reliable news (especially when cuts to the editorial staff mean newspapers might not be more reliable after all.) We say we want better news, but our lives show most of us don’t care enough to pay for it. But when someone’s livelihood is literally on the line – that’s a different question. And so, the trade press reacts differently.

Is this a good thing? For American culture, for the American republic? This isn’t the first time we have a divided, rabid, often-inaccurate press; newspapers circa 1800 were every bit as vituperative as blogs today. Federalist papers called Jefferson an atheist (he wasn’t, but he was a deist) and warned that electing him would lead to mass murder and rape; Republican papers shot back that Adams was plotting to found a hereditary dynasty (he wasn’t, but he had once speculated that properly-limited monarchy might be fine).  But, despite all this, papers had resources to find new stories and study them. After Heltman buried the story on bad energy regulation risking oil spills, no blog picked it up. Nor should we necessarily expect them to – Water Policy Report had Heltman on the spot in Washington to call sources, and multiple competing 1800-era newspapers had reporters in Philadelphia, but what Washington reporters does a random blog have? Blogs can be excellent for analyzing stories once broken, or breaking further details of stories in which they’re interested – for example, Durham In Wonderland performed admirably in the Duke lacrosse scandal, and Fred Clark himself has skillfully analyzed the decline of mainstream newspapers – but they aren’t so good at breaking news.

So how can we respond? Fred Clark urges newspapers to focus on verification over volume, saying it’s their primary mission. Yet, sadly, the economic incentives are against us. “If there is sufficient demand for information, someone will gather it,” says Heltman – but do people truly value 1970’s-era newspapers enough to pay for them? If the cuts that Clark deplores had not happened, would they have survived? I think not. Even if an idealist established a 1970’s-era newspaper complete with in-depth reporters and a full editorial staff, people would probably not be willing to pay for subscriptions. The controversy over sites like FactCheck.org shows how an editorial staff will inherently make disputable calls, and Clark himself points out how good editing delays stories from being posted. Ideally, after several years proved its track record, people would probably be abstractly glad this newspaper existed. But a 1970’s-era news staff is expensive, and few readers would be glad enough to pay money.

Perhaps, in the long run, a coalition of news bloggers could hire reporters or cultivate sources to break stories? But that’s a far-off dream that probably requires more cooperation than the blogosphere is capable of. (Indeed, one of its strengths is each blogger’s independence.) In the meantime, we can take what individual action we can toward the common good: analyze what news there is, and expose what stories we can.