Media Watch: Why We Need Shoe-Leather Local Reporters

Buckle up for a lecture about the civic virtues of old-fashioned journalism. This is a business story for the media industry. It’s also a concern of the first order for society at large. We are losing a vital resource as local reporters fade from the scene.

In the midst of a technological revolution and an industrywide depression, traditional media companies are slashing costs by letting go experienced journalists—those who cover city hall, read the fine print on municipal bond deals, and know which county judges control the courthouse. Serendipitous recent outings on very different fronts have reminded me what we’re sacrificing as we allow experienced local journalists to slouch toward extinction.

Dispatched by my bosses at Bloomberg Businessweek to come up with online and magazine pieces on the scary chemical spill in West Virginia that cut off water to 300,000 people, I did my thing, both short and snappy and in greater depth. Fine.

At the local level, though, a guy named Ken Ward Jr. and his intrepid colleagues at the Charleston Gazette were slugging it out from the moment neighbors of the tank farm smelled a licorice-like odor, signaling that coal-processing chemicals were escaping into the Elk River. Long after my return to New York, the Gazette gang is still holding corporate, regulatory, and political officials in West Virginia accountable for this egregious example of what happens when a hands-off governing ideology encourages negligent commerce. Twentysomething bloggers wearing baseball caps backward don’t have the information sources of a single Ken Ward. National media company employees (like me) can’t get to the scene on Day One or stay there on Day 31 to play the vital role of watchdog.

Yesterday, Ward reported that in the process of cleaning up the chemical spill, a hazmat crew mistakenly hit an underground pipe, causing yet more of the same compound to escape. Oy gevalt! Go get ‘em, Ken.

The stalwart Chilton family continues to own and run the Gazette, as they have for generations. The paper coexists and collaborates with the Charleston Daily Mail, which is owned by the Media News chain. Based in Denver, Media News is not known for providing expansive resources to its reportorial ranks. The uneasy corporate alliance that provides West Virginia with its news is subject to the same economic pressures—advertisers fleeing to the Internet, readers fleeing to Facebook—as all other traditional media companies. The only way to have Ken Ward & Co. ready to go when crisis hits is to offer them financial and social incentives—what we used to naively refer to as a “career”—that influence them to choose the news biz as their livelihood. How much longer will the Chiltons and Media News do that?

Over in Chapel Hill, N.C., I’ve been reporting on the doings of NCAA Inc., the multibillion-dollar business that is college sports. The Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—a basketball powerhouse hosted, in the peculiar American fashion, by a first-rate educational institution—are having a rough season on the court, in the classroom, and especially in the chancellor’s office. A dismaying academic-fraud scandal related to the drive to keep athletes eligible has revealed deep-seated corruption on a bucolic and revered campus. Again, I’ve tried to explain why all this matters and add a few facts to the debate. The yeoman’s work, though, has been done by Dan Kane, a local investigative reporter with the News & Observer in Raleigh. Without Kane’s doggedness, UNC probably would have succeeded in obfuscating a situation that demanded—and still demands—much more attention.

Sadly, Dan Kane is exactly the kind of experienced reporter whom companies like the struggling McClatchy chain, owner of the N&O, as well as the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, are easing toward the exit. But without ornery, persistent on-the-ground guys like Dan, an institution like UNC—a pillar of the North Carolina power elite—simply would face no skeptical scrutiny.

So there’s the lecture. Discount it because I’ve spent my whole career taking notes and typing fast. Maybe discount it further because I don’t have a solution for the economic crisis facing traditional media. And let’s acknowledge that old-fashioned newspapers and magazines were (and are) as flawed as any other organization run by human beings. They make mistakes; they fail to innovate. But before we usher all the ink-stained wretches toward jobs in public relations or (inadequately financed) retirement, we better realize what we’re losing.

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