Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Walter Shapiro: Where have all of the reporters gone?

NATIONAL POLITICAL writer Walter Shapiro recently added another gloomy chapter to the fading world of newspapers and it tells of local reporters who are no longer there. Shapiro, who has covered eight presidential campaigns, found himself in Hartsville, S. Car., a town 70 miles northeast of the state capital of Columbia a few days after a wild GOP gubernatorial primary that led to a runoff election. It was won by Nikki Haley, an Indian-American woman that one Republican state legislator had brutishly called a "raghead". She would be there, along with 100 or so Tea Partyers and some national media.

What's wrong with this picture with strong post-election elements? Well, there were notable absentees, Shapiro observed. Not a single South Carolina newspaper, wire service, TV or radio reporter showed up.
"What we are witnessing in this election cycle," he wrote, " is the slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism. I noticed the same pattern (and the same nearly reporter-free campaign trail) in Kentucky last month as I covered libertarian Rand Paul's decisive defeat of the state Republican establishment in the GOP Senate primary. Aside from an occasional AP reporter, virtually the only print journalists whom I encountered a campaign events were my national press-pack colleagues from the NewYork Times, the Washington Post, Politico and the Atlantic Monthly."
The reason for the disappearing act? Shapiro reports the sad numbers in staff size:
"Newspapers like the Louisiville Courier-Journal and The State, South Carolina's largest paper, have dramatically de-emphasized in-depth candidate coverage because they are too short-handed to spare reporters. A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) found that newsroom staffs across the country have declined by 25 percent since 2001."
I would add that in some newsrooms, it's a lot worse than that

The newspaper-bashers, including politicians whose oxen were being gored, would find nothing troubling about a digest version of a newspaper - or nothing at all - arriving at their doorstep every day.

But the cutback in political coverage is creating a serious vacuum on the home front in accountability for local and state politicians. Neither the New York Times nor office-bound Rush Limbaugh covers your suburbs. In these spots, the pols have a free hand in most instances short of mayhem. This is not to suggest that all small- town officials are on the take. Not at all. But even in non-criminal matters, attention by the local newspaper can keep everyone on the alert that there may be a more effective way of governing than what you might find in self-congratulatory press releases.

Unfortunately, the decline is beyond the point of no return. In another decade or so - maybe sooner - a lively aggressive local media will be part of the folklore like Hildy Johnson and The Front Page.

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