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The just-released report of Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson, titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” takes a long, hard look at an embattled industry. As the authors point out in the report, “Fewer journalists are reporting less news in fewer pages, and the hegemony that near-monopoly metropolitan newspapers enjoyed during the last third of the twentieth century, even as their primary audience eroded, is ending.”
The report takes a particular interest in local accountability and enterprise reporting, which is the commodity most at stake as newspapers pare down their editorial staffs. The paring-down is serious: Though the number of newspaper editorial employees jumped from 40,000 to 60,000 from 1971 to 1992, it has returned to 40,000.
Former Washington Post Executive Editor Downie and Schudson, a Columbia University prof, run through their candidates for supplementing newspapers’ legendary local coverage:
- Radio and TV news: Nah, there’s just not enough reportorial muscle in these operations to hold cops and city halls accountable, the authors conclude, citing some notable exceptions.
- Sites like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, not to mention ProPublica and others. These are good starts, say the authors. BUT: “Collectively, the newcomers are filling some of the gaps left by the downsizing of newspapers’ reporting staffs, especially in local accountability and neighborhood reporting. However, the staffs of most of the start-ups are still small, as are their audiences and budgets, and they are scattered unevenly across the country.”
- Bloggers: They’re doing some serious work out there. BUT: “The fast-growing number of digital start-ups, ambitious blogs, experiments in pro-am journalism, and other hybrid news organizations are not replacing newspapers or broadcast news.”
- Alt-Weeklies: Alt-weeklies? Well, jeez, let me do a search on the Downie-Schudson document and see if I can’t find them, or at least some mention of them. Search results negative!
I suppose that’s forgivable. After all, alt-weeklies, which are scattered evenly across the country, only channel all of their editorial resources toward local reporting; only conduct long-form investigations of key local agencies and authorities all the time; only monitor city halls like no one’s business; only do all kinds of arts reporting that no other outlets care to do; and have been at it only for about half a century now.
Why mention those news organizations?
Hey, wait: I found an alt-weekly reference. In discussing the impact of Baltimore blogger Fern Shen, Downie and Schudson write: “She is hoping to take advantage of being named “best local blog” by the Baltimore City Paper to raise revenue from prospective advertisers and eventually create a paying business for herself and her contributors.”
Now that’s the kind of alt-weekly impact I’m talking about!