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Thursday, January 14, 2016

We Need Journalists

Real reporters who do real news
By Will Collette

In this commentary, I’m going to piggy-back on a great piece by Providence blogger Beth Comery on the need for a revival of good journalism.

To me, the main role of the journalist is to find not just the facts, but the truth. 

A good journalist needs either the memory or the capacity to find the background and context of the stories he or she is presenting to the public.

The ranks of professional journalists, here in Rhode Island and across the country, have been decimated. As more of American media get swallowed up by corporate giants, profits take preference over content – as if content had no relationship to subscriber rates and advertising.

In Beth’s piece below, she focuses mostly on Providence-based statewide media. But South County’s media shrinkage is, in my opinion, even more pronounced.

The Providence Journal once had full-time staff and an office to cover South County. That ended years ago. Now, we get coverage from time to time on various, usually quirky, topics but no general news coverage from our state’s newspaper of record.

Our one daily newspaper, the Westerly Sun, was bought by the Record-Journal, a small chain based in Meriden, Connecticut. Shortly after the purchase, we saw significant shrinkage at the Sun. Significantly, it moved across the river into Pawcatuck.

These days, the Sun uses as much borrowed content taken off the internet as we do here at Progressive Charlestown. Little of the Sun's original content can be accessed on-line without either a paid newspaper subscription or a stiff web-only fee.

The South County Independent and the Northeast Independent (tied financially to the Newport Daily News) merged into The Independent. They also cut coverage and staff. Their website is still free. And they still do hard news.

The array of smaller newspapers under the Southern Rhode Island Newspapers (e.g. the Chariho Times, Narragansett Times) have also gone through major consolidation and retrenchment. Their web content has been very limited, often not updated for weeks and generally articles can only be read in part.

Most recently, the Block Island Times was bought by a media company rife with controversies – ranging from ties to Republican gambling tycoon and presidential king-maker Sheldon Adelman to admitted plagiarism. Since the change in ownership, the main difference I’ve seen on their website is a lot less content.

It’s certainly true that the reading public’s tastes have changed and their preferred way of getting the news has shifted from hard copy (newspapers and magazines) to the internet, Twitter, Facebook and so on. Newspapers have resisted the switch, not so much of creating their own lively electronic versions, but with more retrenchment – cut staff and charge more.

But even in the electronic realm, being on-line is no guarantee of success. Take the lively experiment by Ariana Huffington (of Huffington Post fame) of creating an array of hometown Patch websites, advertised as a return to intensively local news coverage available to you for free over the internet.

Patch started out well-funded and staffed, but failed to provide a quick return on investment, causing an even more radical retrenchment where nearly all the paid journalists were fired.

That experiment has largely failed – Patch is now pretty much a statewide and regional corporate product where you’re likely to see every Patch in a state carry the same content, whether it’s the Narragansett-South Kingstown Patch or the Cranston Patch. There is very little actual journalism taking place at the Patch

And the problem of drastic cuts in the reporters’ ranks is made even worse by the corporate bean-counters. Job losses have been even greater among editing, art/photography, and production-type jobs.

That means that what few journalists who are left are being expected to do a ton of stuff that isn't actual journalism, like shooting their own photos/video when they cover events, editing and posting their own stories online, etc.

There are also far fewer editors, so there's no one to ask journalists those pesky questions that expose biases or fill in the holes in their stories or add balance.

When readers post post comments complaining about what "the proofreader" missed in a story, they miss the point that actual proofreaders were the first to go the way of the passenger pigeon. So it’s now common that the proofreader and the writer are one and the same.

I love the news and really appreciate good journalists. More than once, I’ve singled out the great investigative work done by Dale Faulkner at the Westerly Sun and Judy Benson’s great writing on nuclear issues at the New London Day.

Journalism has to become an occupation with a future as it once was to lure in new talent. The corporate bean-counters have to be put in their place. You don’t revitalize dying media outlets by cutting the content – that only accelerates the loss of subscribers.

While bloggers and their blogs play some role in the mix, we’re often not equipped to do the job of real, regular coverage of the news. Frankly, we much prefer to just do commentary. Further, some of us – like Tom Ferrio and me here at Progressive Charlestown – aren’t doing this as a profession. 

Those that do try to make a living at it, like our friends at Rhode Island’s Future and ecoRI, have to struggle to make ends meet.

In my opinion, people still really do want the news. They also want analysis and context for the news. In other words, they want more than just a regurgitated version of the official positions taken by, for example, groups like the Charlestown Citizens Alliance or politicians like state Rep. Blake Filippi. 

By all means, report what they say, but also look BEHIND what they see to whether it is true.

Now, you could go the route of some media – Fox is the best example – where the spin on the news to pander to a particular audience comes at the expense of the truth.

Or you can use innovation and expanded quality news staff to bring readers back. It’s how such respected news giants like the New York Times and Boston Globe are finding their way back. 

That’s my perspective. Now, in its entirety is Beth Comery’s essay in the Providence Daily Dose that led me to write this piece:

We Need Journalists by Beth Comery

The democracy depends on it. Unfortunately it is the field of public relations that is exploding, and just as newspapers continue cuts into their reporting staffs. Edward Fitzpatrick illuminates the seriousness of this imbalance in the ProJo with “R.I. needs less spin, more transparency.”

Look at these figures for Rhode Island.

And The Journal’s Katherine Gregg has chronicled how much Rhode Island taxpayers are injecting into state government’s public relations machine: The state is spending $4.3 million this year for some 53 press secretaries, communications directors and public information officers who make anywhere from $41,995 to $133,900 per year. Taxpayers are shelling out another $6.2 million to private companies that do “communications and marketing” for state government. And quasi-public agencies spent about $1.5 million on PR staff and consultants.

That’s over $10 million of your money being spent to tell you what a great job your elected officials are doing. Meanwhile the Providence Journal staff is a shadow of its former self. The reporters that remain are excellent; there’s just not enough of them to keep an eye on this corruption-prone state.

Even those new to Rhode Island have observed firsthand the level of vigilance required here. Gordon Fox and the costly 38 Studios debacle are still in the news, and as of last month, the portrait of a convicted criminal holds pride of place in the Aldermen’s Chambers of Providence City Hall.

Fitzpatrick asked the New England First Amendment Coalition to weigh in.

“We are outnumbered,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “The rise of PR and the decline of watchdog journalism should be a serious concern for the public. The goals of the news media and the PR industry are often at odds. Rather than trying to put the best face on things for the government, the news media are obligated to act as a watchdog.”

This is serious.