Outgoing CBS anchorman Bob Schieffer spent an hour with NPR's Diane Rehm on Tuesday and reflected on his career. In the process, Schieffer was asked to name the biggest threat to the future of journalism. He said the decline of local journalism. Here are some of Schieffer's comments:
Unless some entity comes along and does what local newspapers have been doing all these years, we're gonna have corruption at a level we've never experienced. . . . Because there's nobody -- so many papers now can't afford to have a beat reporter. For example, many papers don't have a city hall reporter anymore. They send somebody to cover the city council meetings, but to cover city hall, you have to be there every day and you have to know the overall story, not just report whatever happens on a particular day.
Schieffer is absolutely right. Witness the past two weeks.
* The Louisville Courier-Journal closed its D.C. bureau, leaving Jim Carroll -- a longtime political journalist -- without a job. "After a nearly continuous string of 150 years or so of covering Washington with its own correspondents, The Courier-Journal is closing its bureau in the nation's capital," Carroll wrote in his final column. "Needless to say, I would prefer a different decision. But the move is a sign of the continuing economic pressures on the nation's news organizations, particularly newspapers, that have led to many Washington bureau closings over the past decade or so."
* Lee newspapers, which owns the five biggest newspapers in Montana, decided to close it statehouse bureau in Helena, leaving two of the best political reporters in the state out of a job -- including the legendary Chuck Johnson, who has covered state politics since the 1970s. (Both Johnson and Mike Dennison, who also was let go, were on the Fix's 2015 list of the best state-based political reporters in the country.)
These are not isolated incidents. As the journalism industry has become more constricted over the past decade, local news organizations have been hit the hardest. This chart, courtesy of a 2014 study of statehouse reporting by the Pew Research Center, tells the depressing tale.
Less than a third of all newspapers in the country assign a reporter -- part time or full time -- to cover statehouses, according to the Pew study. Almost nine in 10 (86 percent) of local TV stations have no part-time or full-time correspondent covering the statehouse.
Although the fates of big national media organizations -- such as The Post -- get most of the attention as we all try to adjust to the new editorial and business realities of journalism, the disappearance of the littler guys is actually a bigger story.
Yes, large organizations like The Post, the New York Times and so on and so forth are in the midst of adjusting to massive changes. But, does anyone think they won't exist in a decade? No. The elimination of a reporter covering, say, Washington for a major Kentucky paper means that that job almost certainly won't be coming back. And that means one less set of eyes watching what happens in Washington and relating it back to the people of Kentucky.
That's a hugely important -- and hugely bad -- development. As Schieffer notes in the Rehm interview, no one knows what local pols are up to better than the people covering them day in and day out. Sure, national media swoops in on occasion when some local story gets huge -- but the reason those stories get on the national radar in the first place is because of the spadework of local reporters. The best example of this in my time as a reporter is the San Diego Union-Tribune's reporting on the eye-popping corruption of then Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) in the mid-2000s. (In a telling sign of the times, the Union-Tribune announced Tuesday that it had laid off 178 of its 603 employees after being bought by the same ownership group that controls the Los Angeles Times.)
It's hard to imagine any local newspaper being able to devote the sort of time and resources to such an endeavor in 2015. And, politicians know that. That's the hidden cost in this decline of local news coverage. Not only are there fewer eyes watching politicians, legislation and the like but also the pols are all-too-well well aware of that fact. More things are tried -- in a bad way -- by politicians because they know there is a far smaller chance of them getting caught or even called on it.
None of those things change the underlying business realities that have led so many statehouse and D.C. bureaus to close in recent years. Journalism -- especially at the state and local level -- remains a very iffy business proposition.
I acknowledge those realities. But, we should also acknowledge what we are losing when people like Jim Carroll and Chuck Johnson leave journalism. Institutional knowledge -- knowing who to look at, where and when -- are not the sort of things that are easily replaced. And that's a loss for all of us who care about informing the public the best way we know how about their government and its politicians.