A cartoon timeline in a recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review cogently explained how journalism has evolved in recent decades.
Pre-1987 was portrayed as a time when “the national conversation was based on commonly shared facts, arrived at through professional journalism … held to account by multi-sourced and fact-checked information.”
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission dropped the “fairness doctrine” that required contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance in broadcast media. Soon after, talk radio, rife with opinion and often free of factual standards, began to flourish.
Then in 2010, the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court opened the gateway for unlimited corporate spending on political ads, followed in recent years by social media enabling a profound “muddling” of political information, leading to a “manipulated reality” highlighted by Russian interference in the 2016 election.
According to cartoonist Steve Brodner, that led to today’s “propaganda-media-complex,” so dense and confusing that disgusted consumers move toward electronic distractions free of any journalism.
If that’s not depressing enough, the internet has dealt a massive blow to the business models that supported professional journalism of all shapes and sizes, so that today’s newsrooms are mostly smaller.
Against that backdrop, editors like those of us at the Cap Times are always wrestling with how to best deploy our reporting resources to be as valuable as possible to our readers.
So it was with keen interest I read the latest cover story in The American Prospect, a progressive national magazine, headlined: “How Not to Cover America,” by author and media critic Michael Massing.
His thesis is that the decline of local media, newspapers especially, has made national journalists who report on America’s heartland more important, but because they “parachute” into communities, they mostly fail. “Even the best are likely to be a step behind events,” he lamented.
As has been well-chronicled, the media in the 2016 election cycle did not understand the depth of anxiety and grievance in many parts of the country that helped elect Donald Trump as president. The period since has been filled with mea culpa books and articles trying to make amends. Reporters employ what we call “anecdotal leads” about a single person or family — often focusing on economic distress — and then expand into a paragraph generalizing their experience to the rest of Trump’s geographical base.
To address this lack of perspective, The Washington Post expanded its national reporting team and dubbed it “Team America,” superhero style, to tell stories about average people not clustered in prosperous coastal cities, Massing wrote.
Just this week, Robert Samuels, an award-winning national reporter for the Post, produced a wrenching story about a homeless Milwaukee family, in and out of jobs, struggling with the latest Republican “reforms” out of the Capitol here in Madison that make it harder to get food stamps.
Massing directs much of his critique at the Post and New York Times, and his back-and-forth with their editors is fascinating, but what about those of us in the hinterlands, in smaller newsrooms that continue to evolve our own news missions?
Massing focused part of his essay on the importance of bolstering local news: “This is essential not only to keep citizens informed but also to uncover stories that can be picked up by national organizations.”
To delve deeper, I interviewed Massing, told him a bit about the Cap Times and solicited his advice.
We started with the idea that just as coastal journalists experience little of small-town and rural Middle America, the same might be said for journalists who operate inside the Madison bubble. Massing explained, “You’re a little New York in the middle of Wisconsin.”
He said he continues to not fully understand why a state with such a progressive reputation could support Gov. Scott Walker over three elections. “I’d like to see more in-depth reporting on these kinds of questions, which you can really only get at by going out and talking to people in restaurants and bars and parking lots at shopping malls and in churches.”
The importance of local news organizations exploring such questions appears to affect election outcomes, he said, pointing to a recent special report in Politico that found Trump notably did better than prior Republican candidates in so-called “news deserts,” where local mainstream media is sparse or absent.
Politico reported: “An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn't do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.” Massing speculated that reporting could reveal what is filling the gap. “Is Facebook a major thing?” he asked rhetorically. “Is Fox (News)?”
Massing, a former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review who also writes extensively for the New York Review of Books and The Nation magazine, also suggested the need for more local reporting that follows the money. “Look at sort of who is really running the show. Who has the money? I do not know what the answers would be in a state like Wisconsin.”
And while he appreciates micro-level investigative reporting, readers also need help understanding the larger analytical framework. “You need to step back and ask, ‘Who is really pulling the strings here?’”
Or, to quote him from an article he wrote for The Nation, another progressive magazine: “The main obstacle to truly groundbreaking reporting is intellectual. American journalists need to break free of their current constricting emphasis on ‘exposés’ and ‘scoops’ and adopt a more expansive program that seeks to bare the underlying realities of money, power and influence in America — to show how things really work.”
In all of this, it occurs to me, there is tension between a news organization’s desire for a high volume of stories against the need to invest much more time and energy in fewer high-value ones.
Finding new business models to support this high-quality journalism is essential, and success stories have been few so far.
But, if we don’t figure it out, well, we’ve seen what happens then.
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