Monday, September 5, 2016

Spotlight on the Labor of Local Journalism

I know, I know, I'm a bad journalist.

I had not seen the Academy Award winning movie "Spotlight" until last night.

I'm not sure it surpasses my other favorite Michael Keaton newspaper movie, "The Paper," on my list, but it is definitely up there.

I told myself I would not write about it, that I would just enjoy it like a regular Joe, and then I did a stupid thing. I started thinking about it.

For those of you who don't know, the movie is about a the team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe who finally told the world about the Catholic Church's problem with priests molesting children.

So of course I would like it.

Gallant and persistent newspaper people doggedly digging out the evidence to reveal a wrong, it's enough to make you love newspapers again.

Except love is not enough.

Newspapers, as we all know and as I've written here before, are not healthy.

Fewer people read them and even fewer people pay for them, which is the crux of the problem. Given that in order to, as Liv Schreiber's character says in the movie "the newspaper should stand alone" (among Boston's great institutions), it has to make its own money.

If you haven't seen it yet (and you have 20 minutes to spare) comedian John Oliver explained it all pretty well on his HBO show "This Week Tonight:"

The fact that Oliver uses "Spotlight" as the basis for his parody at the end of the piece only makes it that much more relevant for my purposes.

When newspapers were making money by the bucket, it was easy for them to convince themselves that they could be capitalists and protectors of the public trust. But money has become an issue.

I could not help, while watching this movie, thinking about Oliver's piece, which I had seen prior to the movie, and thinking about how expensive it was to keep this team of reporters and editors, focused on this one story for month after month.

First page of the first day of the "Do or Die Time" series.
I can tell you this, in case you didn't already know, we don't do that kind of thing at The Mercury any more.

We used to.

When I began at The Mercury in 1997, it was not long before I was assigned "a project," which grew into the five-day "Pottstown: Do or Die Time" series, which some of you may recall and is now so old I cannot provide you with a link because it was never on a web site.

During the four or six weeks I was given to research that project, my beat was covered by another reporter -- even, rather painfully -- when Mrs. Smith's Pies announced it was closing its Pottstown plant.
Page 2, Day 1 of said series

Since then, however, any big projects I've worked on at The Mercury have been cobbled together in addition to covering my regular beat. And since then, my
beat has grown larger as the staff has grown smaller and I don't think our readers can expect too many "Spotlight" worthy investigations landing on their doorstep any time soon.

For as money gets tighter, ad revenues drop, staffs get cut and the capitalism part increasingly overshadows the government watchdog part.

The Mercury, and its sister newspapers in what we call "the Philadelphia cluster" are owned by Digital First Media, a company that is owned or controlled by a hedge fund named Alden Global Capital.

Hedge funds, as you probably know, are a little more focused on capitalism than they are on journalism. And so as our owners cut photographers, editors and reporters in a self-immolating effort to slice their way to double-digit returns (we manage single digit returns with old staff levels but remember -- hedge fund), the question  arises: can newspapers survive?"

Jim Rutenberg tackled that question Sunday in The New York Times, and yes I see the irony thank you. (Also ironic, you may have to pay to read that link).

The answer is in the long run, probably not. The more vital question, in my mind, is can the function of newspapers survive?

Although the romantic in me loves the feel and legacy of newspapers, I am not so naive as to believe they must exist forever. Already many of us, perhaps most of us, read our newspapers on-line, for free if we can.

But more disturbing is how we end up reading them.

Chances are they come to us in some kind of social media feed and studies show readers view a New York Times expose about increased flooding due to global warming with the same level of interest (importance) as the photo their friend just took of the ice cream cone he is about to eat.

Further still, consider what happened when our friends at Facebook recently fired all the human beings overseeing their "trending topics" function -- and within two days had identified a fake news story as trending.

Now to be fair, it was revealed before that decision was announced that the humans who had been in charge of "trending topics" apparently had been letting their bias show in what topics were trending, so its a kind of six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-another conundrum.

But left to choose between outright falsehood or human bias in what Facebook tells us people are reading, put me squarely in the fallible humans column if for no other reason than because I'm not sure how you get accountability from an algorithm.

Which brings us back to the human equation, i.e., that imperfect species of human known as "journalist."

If you agree that A) they are currently preferable to machines in producing the news you consume and, B) its preferable to have people who know a thing or two about the business in charge, than you reach the inevitable conclusion that C), you're going to have to pay them; preferably a living wage so they can concentrate on their work and not the need to leave early for their second job bagging groceries.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the Labor Day portion of our tirade.

The Mercury is among several newspapers in our cluster, and among many more across the country, who are members of a union -- The Newspaper Guild.

Our Guild is part of a larger union, The Communications Workers of America, or CWA.

A grant from the CWA helped pay for an effort by Digital First Media guild workers to mount a media campaign highlighting not only the plight of news workers who had gone without raises for as long as 10 years, but also how hedge fund ownership of your local newspaper affects what news you get and what that means for your community.

In fact I was researching an article for the effort's web site on what happens to a place when its local newspaper goes under when the unprecedented happened -- Digital First Media sat down in Denver with every Guild unit within its newspapers and negotiated a three-year contract that included the first raise in years and a 5 percentage point reduction in our share of health insurance premiums (from 40 percent to 35 percent).

This is obviously good news, and good news to share on Labor Day.

But let's be honest.

It is an overdue battlefield victory in a long war of attrition which ultimately news workers and, even more ultimately, small towns like Pottstown, are bound to lose unless something changes in the basic equation.

Unless an economically sustainable way can be found to provide the local journalism function, it simply cannot continue as it is now.

 And while I cannot tell you how to fix it -- smarter people than me haven't succeeded yet -- I can tell you what it means.

Simply put, it means more corruption, fewer voters, more incumbents being reelected.

In 2007, the Cincinnati Post closed, and had the good grace to announce it ahead of time. This allowed Princeton Assistant Professor of economics and public affairs Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido to study the before and after affects on civic life in the northern Kentucky towns where the Post's coverage dominated.

As Time magazine summarized: "in towns the Post regularly covered, voter turnout dropped, fewer people ran for office and more incumbents were reelected. That is, when there were fewer stories about a given town, its inhabitants seemed to care less about how they're being governed."

Another Princeton study found a director correlation between the circulation of newspapers in a democracy, and the level of corruption in its government.

"Free circulation of newspapers has a very strong effect on the level of corruption," the study authors found.

"A change in the level of circulation in newspapers from its median to its maximum level would reduce the level of corruption."

And if you're looking for a real life example of this hypothesis, look no further than the City of Bell, California.

Elected city council members were being paid $80,000 and approved raises for the city administrator, Robert Rizzo, that paid him $880,000 per year and would have gained him a pension of $1 million.
Robert Rizzo

This, while the city was laboring under huge tax increases and huge deficits.

The state pension system should have realized the problem when those papers were filed but, surprise!, it didn't.

How did they get away with it for years? One factor was the closing of the local newspaper in 1998, the same year tRizzo was hired. No one knew what was happening.

And it took a team of reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, to uncover the corruption and publicize it in 2010, an effort that won them a Pulitzer Prize.
The Los Angeles Times celebrates its Pulitzer.
As newspapers fade, such scandals will become
more common and less reported.

But ask yourself, how many others are there out there? How many more towns and cities, small and large, which no longer have an independent watchdog in the local media, are looting the taxpayers?

They wouldn't even know, and neither do we.

Because there is no one being paid to tell us.

And although Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism studies increasingly show that the public does not recognize, or appreciate, the role local media plays in making their lives better, as Conrad Fink, a former journalist who teaches newspaper management and strategy at the University of Georgia puts it: "The American public doesn't realize it, but they're going to miss us if we're gone."


  1. Excellent design.

  2. Excellent, thoughtful column. Thank you!