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The Big News: Shrinking Reportage
The study examined more than 2,000 stories in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today; a range of network and cable shows; local TV stations in Houston and Milwaukee, and seven popular blogs.
The growth has been among outlets such as Google News and Yahoo, which aggregate content from other sources; blogs, on which only 5 percent of posts involved original research; and satellite radio, which serves up news, talk, entertainment and music but little or no original reporting. Even the online audience leveled off in 2005.
Having more choices is great. But are new-media outlets going to break the next story about warrantless domestic eavesdropping or secret CIA prisons? Investigative reporting is expensive, which is why the shrinking audience and growing layoffs among those who have been doing it are bad news for more than just these media dinosaurs.
Eight days ago, says Milwaukee blogger Jim McAdams, New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro called him and was "pretty irate."
"Do you get your jollies out of this?" McAdams recalls Barbaro asking.
What McAdams did was to scoop Barbaro on his story about how Wal-Mart was sending tips and information to sympathetic bloggers as a way of getting its message out. Barbaro, who maintains he was not irate, says he was "disappointed" that McAdams and other bloggers would "post what it is I was reporting on" after he sent them e-mails seeking comment -- with a request that the e-mails not be publicized. The online chatter enabled the Wall Street Journal to publish a short piece the same day as the Times.
McAdams, who teaches political science at Marquette University, says he had no obligation to keep confidential the fact that a reporter had sent him an e-mail. "You're talking about a bunch of conservative, pro-business bloggers who are sympathetic to Wal-Mart," he says. "This isn't really news. Wal-Mart is simply doing with bloggers what flacks have been doing with broadcast and print media for decades." In his posting, McAdams listed all the e-mails he had gotten from Wal-Mart's PR firm, Edelman, saying he used some and ignored others.
Barbaro, a former Washington Post staffer, reported that some of the bloggers were running messages from a Wal-Mart publicist verbatim, without identifying the source. For instance, some sites used the retailer's precise language in linking to commentary on legislation to force Wal-Mart to improve health benefits: "All across the country, newspaper editorial boards -- no great friends of business -- are ripping the bills."
Barbaro says he was exploring legitimate questions about online ethics and "I do not want to come off as someone who's angry at bloggers because I'm not. I think bloggers serve an enormously important role."
Bob Beller, a Fredericksburg military contractor who runs the blog Crazy Politico's Rantings, cooperated with the Times and says Barbaro was "very professional." But he says the story was "more negative" than he expected and "made it sound slightly dirty" for bloggers to use material from Wal-Mart.
Brian Pickrell, an Iowa restaurant manager whose self-described "Republican/conservative" blog is called Iowa Voice, wrote that he was "not going to grant a single interview to any more of you left-wing hacks," but agreed to an e-mail exchange. Pickrell blames a coding mistake for one instance in which Wal-Mart's views appeared to be his own.
Invoking the Jayson Blair scandal, Pickrell calls it "astonishing" that "someone writing under the masthead of the national newspaper still trying to regain its own credibility for arguably the most sinister and manipulative attempt at plagiarism in journalistic history is so brash" in raising these questions. "I was writing about Wal-Mart long before they or their PR guy got in touch with me."
Richard Edelman, CEO of the public relations giant, has his own blog and reacted to the Times piece immediately: "We encourage all our clients to reach out to the blogosphere. It should be part of any smart communications program." Bloggers, like journalists, "do not need to disclose their sources," Edelman says, "but they should attribute specific content to a company or another blogger if used verbatim."