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News and Features: Features

Silent crisis

The shrinking press corps at places such as the State House leads to a decline in what the FCC calls 'accountability reporting'

BY: Bruce Mohl and Mariah Sondergard
Photographs By: Mark Morelli
Issue: 15th Anniversary Issue


gov. deval patrick issued a press release in September announcing seven new appointees to the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees. The release contained all the basics: their names, their previous work histories, and a canned statement from the governor saying, “These board members all care deeply about the University of Massachusetts and will work to strengthen our already robust system of state colleges and universities.”

 

 The main press room at the State House is largely vacant.

Most news outlets ignored the announcement. A few essentially published the press release, highlighting a local person who had been named to the board. Others ran an Associated Press version of the story, which regurgitated the basics while noting that several of the appointees were Democratic loyalists and two had donated money to the governor’s campaign.

Two news outlets, The Boston Globe and Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette, dug deeper and provided more context, in the process transforming a government press release into a broader story about Patrick’s second-term proclivity for exerting control over state government and rewarding political allies.

Both the Globe’s Frank Phillips and the Gazette’s Chad Cain focused on Patrick’s reappointment of board chairman James Karam, a Fall River businessman who led the recent search for new university president Robert Caret. Both reporters pointed out that Attorney General Martha Coakley had recently ruled that the search for Caret had been conducted illegally behind closed doors.

Phillips reported that members of the Karam family had donated close to $38,000 to Patrick since 2006 and that Karam and his brother had hosted a New Bedford fundraiser for the governor in August that raised more than $35,000. Cain quoted Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at UMass Amherst, as saying Karam’s appointment was a “black eye” for the university. “This is the worst kind of signal to send, that a law-breaker can be reappointed to the board of trustees,” Page said.

The stories represent the type of reporting that is be­coming more and more scarce as newsrooms across the state empty out. The Federal Communications Commission, in a report issued this summer, called these types of stories “local, professional, accountability reporting.” The agency says the media landscape is more diverse than ever, but warned that the independent watchdog function that the founding fathers envisioned for journalism is in some cases at risk at the local level as fewer and fewer reporters scramble from one story to the next, juggling more duties than ever.

“They can describe the landscape, but they have less time to turn over rocks,” the report says. “They can convey what they see before their eyes—often better and faster than ever—but they have less time to cover the stories lurking in the shadows or to unearth the information that powerful institutions want to conceal.”

Steven Waldman, a former Newsweek and US News & World Report reporter and the lead author of the FCC report, says the news industry is going through a revolution in style and substance that is far from over. He says retrenchment is dramatically affecting the quality of news coverage at the state and local level, leaving the political system vulnerable to abuse. What frightens him most is that almost no one realizes there is a problem. “It’s a little bit of a silent crisis because you don’t know what you’re missing,” he says.

Quiet at the State House

Peter Lucas has been in and out of the State House as a reporter many times over the last 50 years, and now he’s back—in the same desk he sat at in 1963 when he worked for the now-closed Boston Traveler. He says the big difference this time, working as a columnist for the Lowell Sun, is that it’s so quiet.

Lowell Sun columnist Peter Lucas.

The cavernous fourth-floor press room he occupies, with newspapers piled high on desks and bumper stickers of old campaigns plastered against a wall, used to be a beehive of activity. Ten years ago, every desk was occupied and the noisy chatter of reporters filled the room. Now there’s only Lucas and one or two other reporters from the Associated Press. The rest of the desks, aside from the occasional day visitor, go unused, gathering dust.

“Before, these phones would be ringing constantly,” Lucas says. “Now, the phones never ring.”

Loads of reporters and TV cameras show up for major news events at the State House, but most of them return to their home offices when the event is over. About 15 to 17 reporters work at the State House on a regular basis. They occupy six rooms. Reporters from Lowell, Worc­ester, and Springfield share one room, a handful of radio reporters are in another, and Lucas and the AP share the main room. The State House News Service, the Globe, and the Boston Herald all have their own offices.

Walter Robinson, a former State House bureau chief for the Globe and now a professor of journalism at North­eastern University, says 55 full-time accredited reporters worked at the State House in the late 1970s. He says the Globe had six, the Herald five, and the state’s regional papers would send at least one and sometimes two or three. There were two wire services in addition to the State House News Service and each television station sent two reporters. “Everybody staffed it full-time,” Robinson says.

But over the intervening years, and particularly in the last 10 years, the news media have scaled way back at the State House. The Globe is down to three reporters. The Herald has one who is intermittently there. AP rotates one or two people in and out. TV stations come and go, but no one is assigned there regularly anymore. All but three of the state’s regional newspapers have pulled back. The Patriot Ledger, owned by GateHouse Media, pulled its reporter earlier this year; years ago the newspaper had three at the State House.

Jim Campanini, the editor of the Lowell Sun, said he had three reporters covering the State House when he first took over nine years ago. He’s now down to one reporter plus Lucas, whom he lured out of retirement. He says he’s committed to maintaining a presence at the State House because readers want to know what their lawmakers are doing. “As long as I’m the editor here and Mark O’Neil is the publisher, we will fulfill our responsibility to cover the State House,” he says. “We have had to retrench, but we haven’t had to retreat.”

Richard Lodge, editor of the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham and editor-in-chief of the GateHouse Media west unit, was forced to retreat. When his State House reporter left for another job several years ago, he tried to rotate reporters in and out for awhile but eventually had to eliminate the position. “The franchise here is local news,” he says.

For major State House stories, Lodge now uses the AP wire service or the State House News Service. For coverage of local lawmakers or issues of particular importance to his readers, he relies on a student writer from the Boston University State House program. BU professor Fred Bayles, a former AP reporter himself, oversees the students and edits their copy, but they report directly to a newspaper editor, who also supervises them.

Bayles says his students, who write for the Cape Cod Times, the Lowell Sun, the Patriot Ledger, the Salem News, and the Fitchburg-based Sen­t­inel and Enterprise, make up the largest news operation at the State House, generating 200 to 250 byline pieces a semester. It’s a blend of academic and real-life work that gives students valuable experience and the newspapers some cheap reporting help. The newspapers pay $250 per semester for the service.

 

 Northeastern University journalism professor Walter Robinson.
Photo by Kathleen Dooher.

The State House News Service is one news operation that has benefited from news cutbacks. It used to be a backstop for most news organizations, essentially a transcription service keeping track of hearings, press conferences, and legislative sessions. But as the reporting ranks dwindled on Beacon Hill, the News Service has become a major supplier of State House stories to newspapers and media outlets across the state.

Michael Norton, editor of the News Service, says the exodus of reporters from Beacon Hill has been good for his business, but he’s still troubled by it. He worries about what’s not being covered, since more and more key decisions on Beacon Hill are made behind closed doors and getting at stories is harder than ever. “I wish there were more people up here covering things,” he says.

As for the BU student journalists fanning out across Beacon Hill, Norton says they play a useful role. “But having someone cover something for a few months is not the same as having an experienced reporter covering the State House as a beat,” he says.

Lodge agrees. He says if he still had a reporter at the State House, he or she would be doing stories of local interest as well as filing public records requests to ferret out payrolls and contracts. “There are just fewer reporters covering state government,” he says. “There’s enterprise and investigative stuff that’s not getting done.”

Lucas says he thinks there is a link between the diminishing State House press corps and the lack of legislative debate on issues on Beacon Hill. “Before there would be debate and it would be covered,” he says. “Now everything is done in caucus.”

He also worries about the press’s diminished watchdog role. “It’s not totally lost,” he says. “The Globe’s Spot­light Team will still do a piece. The Globe can still do it. It has the manpower and the experienced staff. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of memory up here.”

Robinson says the operations of government—the hearings, the agencies, the nuts and bolts of political life —aren’t really covered anymore. Much of what government does or says goes unchallenged. “I tell my students it’s the death of serious reporting,” he says. “Increasingly, for the public, government is what it says it is.”

The big shrink

During one week in September 2000, the Globe put out a Sunday edition that ran 334 pages long, not including the comics, the magazine, or the advertising inserts. The Herald countered with a 183-page tabloid edition. The state’s two flagship newspapers were big the rest of the week as well. The Globe averaged 106 pages a day Monday through Sat­urday, while the Herald averaged 115 pages.

Today, both newspapers are shadows of their former selves. They are smaller, contain less news, and yet are more expensive. Using the same week in September 2011 for comparison purposes, the Globe’s Sunday edition is a third of the size it was 11 years ago but costs 75 percent more on the newsstand. The Herald’s Sunday edition is less than half the size it was in 2000 and costs 15 percent more. Daily editions of both papers are about half the size and cost twice as much. (Disclosure: Bruce Mohl used to work for the Globe.)

The smaller size of the newspapers is a reflection of what many in the industry call the digital disruption. Most Massachusetts newspapers don’t break out their financials, but the New York Times Co., which owns the Globe and the Worcester Telegram, lumps them together on its balance sheet. The two papers reported combined revenue of $189 million during the second quarter of 2000, with 78 percent coming from advertising, 20 percent from circulation, and 2 percent from other sources. During the second quarter of this year, revenue was down 46 percent to $102 million, with advertising accounting for 51 percent of the total and circulation 39 percent. In essence, circulation revenue has held steady despite a 53 percent drop-off in readers at the Globe and a 21 percent decline at the Tele­gram. For the state’s 10 biggest newspapers as a whole, circulation was off 44 percent over the 11-year period.

As newspapers have shrunk, so have their staffs. The Lowell Sun has weathered the digital storm better than most newspapers in Massachusetts, but its staff has nonetheless taken a big hit, going from 71 full- and part-time newsroom employees nine years ago to 41 today, a 42 percent reduction. Officials at the Globe, Herald, and most other newspapers declined to detail their staff reductions, but estimates by union officials and newsroom staff suggest reductions as high as 60 percent over the last decade are not uncommon.

Newspapers aren’t the only for-profit medium that is struggling. The FCC report on local news says local TV stations across the nation have increased their volume of news production while reducing staff, a recipe that tends to yield more superficial reporting. Boston’s stations, in­cluding the New England Cable News channel, tend to place a greater emphasis on accountability reporting, but even they have scaled back their coverage.

Despite the generally gloomy news about news, there are some promising signs. News travels faster now and individuals can consume it almost anywhere. Members of the public can also generate news and photographs themselves and post them to Twitter and Facebook. Universal Hub, a popular Boston-based website, aggregates content from scores of local blogs and news sites. A Massachusetts political candidate is now just as likely to reveal his or her plans on BlueMassGroup, the Democratic-leaning blog, as leak it to the Globe.

Foundations are pumping money into local reporting efforts. The Knight Foundation has given close to $13 million to 15 Massachusetts news initiatives. Recipients in­clude Boston University, Northeastern University, Emerson College, the Boston Globe, and CommonWealth magazine. Local universities and their students are jumping into the news business. Boston University’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting generates investigative reports for a number of media clients, while Robinson and his students at Northeastern churn out investigative reports for the Globe and the Dorchester Reporter. In addition to providing State House coverage to regional newspapers, BU is working with Emerson and Northeastern to provide local coverage of Boston to the Globe.

“Hyper-local” news coverage, which focuses narrowly on a single community, is one area where reporters are being added. Patch, owned by AOL, launched local news sites in Needham, Wellesley, and Belmont last year and now has about 75 sites in Massachusetts. The Globe has launched Your Town sites in many of the communities it serves, and GateHouse Media is trying to expand the reach of its Wicked Local brand. Part news and part community billboard, these sites are vying to win the local news franchise that newspapers hold dear.

Warren Webster, the president of Patch, says there is room for everybody. “We’re not trying to come in and re­place them,” he says of local newspapers. “I think they do what they do well, we do what we do well, and we can all coexist.”

WBUR and its public radio rival WGBH are both aggressively pursuing local news programming. WBUR, in particular, has ambitions to extend its reach. General Manager Charles Kravetz says the station soon plans to announce a major investment in its news-gathering operations and distribution platforms. Kravetz says WBUR has signed a long-term polling agreement with the MassINC Polling Group, is collaborating with several groups on investigative reporting, and wants to expand the number of civic events it hosts each year. “We’re going to be hiring reporters and producers for our digital operations and traditional radio,” he says.

What’s making WBUR’s expansion possible is a fund­raising system targeted at foundations, corporations, and individual donors that seems to be working. A recent fund­raiser brought in $1.475 million with only four days of on-air appeals, 16 percent more than a fundraising drive last year that required eight days of on-air appeals.

Even as new news initiatives come online, it’s unlikely they will fill the void created by the retrenching for-profit media. A study last year of a week’s worth of news coverage in Baltimore indicated the new media landscape isn’t as rich as it appears. The study, conducted by the Pew Re­search Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, found that 95 percent of the stories containing new information came from traditional media, primarily newspapers. The new media, including Twitter, blogs, and local websites, were more of an echo chamber, amplifying the news that others produced. The study also indicated that Baltimore newspapers were producing less news. Com­paring reporting on a 2009 budget crisis to reporting on a similar crisis in 1991, the study found a steep drop-off in coverage.

In Massachusetts, a case can be made that the Globe, despite its smaller staff and near-death two years ago, is more influential than ever, in part because the rest of the local news business has shrunk so much. The newspaper’s reporting brought down former House speaker Sal DiMasi, drove legislative action on probation patronage, and regularly turfs up stories that government officials would prefer never see the light of day. Recent examples include reporting on pension abuses, corruption at a special education collaborative, Big Dig cover-ups, and Lottery shen­ani­gans. The Globe doesn’t cover nearly as much as it once did, but it still churns out important pieces and its Spot­light Team and new “flashlight team” of individual investigative reporters is often driving the political debate.

Globe editor Marty Baron is counting on that perception of quality to convince people to pay for news at Boston­Globe.com, the paper’s recently launched subscription website, separate from Boston.com. “The very fact that we are doing distinct work, work that no one else is doing, allows us to offer a new website that contains all the Globe’s journalism,” Baron says. “We think it’s something that has value and it’s something that people need to pay for because it can’t be supported otherwise.”

Paul Pronovost, the editor of the Cape Cod Times, is not cowed by the times. He says his industry is going through the type of renaissance that hasn’t been seen since Guten­berg perfected the printing press. He says news and information remain an important—and valuable—commodity. “I don’t care if you beam it into their heads. If they can pay for it, you’ve got a business,” he says.

Bob Unger, editor of the New Bedford Standard-Times, says he no longer can afford to have reporters covering each town in the paper’s territory. But he nevertheless tries to frame the public agenda for his community. A good example was a seven-part series this summer that documented problems with the city’s schools and compared the district to four similar urban school districts around the country that faced similar challenges successfully.

Waldman, the lead author of the FCC report on local news, says the new media landscape offers countless ways to distribute news more widely and efficiently. “I’m very emotionally torn because there are so many fantastic innovations living side by side with a decline in local accountability reporting,” he says. “If we can save accountability reporting, we may end up with the best of all worlds.”

Matt Storin, a former Globe editor and adjunct professor at Notre Dame University, says the shakeout in the news business is still going on. He doesn’t know how the news ecosystem will evolve, but he predicts that news coverage will get worse before it gets better, largely because the public hasn’t awakened to the importance of watchdog journalism and the need to support it financially. “Right now, the public doesn’t understand they’ve lost anything,” he says.  

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3 Article Comments

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meterman
Says on 12.06.2011
at 11:04 AM
Great article! Aside from the aforementioned "digital disruption" effect (which is huge), I believe there is also sort of a sociological effect to consider. I use to truly enjoy reading a paper (cover to cover), particularly the Sunday paper. Now that is a rare occurance and I think it is related to the time it takes to do so. There have been a number of times I've invested the money for a Sunday Globe and I never had the time to get to it, or it only gets a casual glance. That led to more often than not, not bothering to buy it. Nowadays, I food shop on Sundays amongst other things. It use to be a day of rest. As a society, have we become just too busy?
Shirl k.
Says on 11.09.2011
at 5:56 PM
Thanks for an important story. This is a crisis I've been worried about for several years.

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." ---- Thomas Jefferson

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