ELi: A Local Response to the Ongoing News Crisis

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Sunday, January 29, 2017, 8:10 am
Jim Detjen, MSU Knight Professor of Journalism Emeritus

The watchdog role of American journalism is in peril.

That’s why I support East Lansing Info, and other non-profit news organizations.

I became a professional journalist in the early 1970s when investigative reporting was blossoming in America. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two reporters at the Washington Post, helped uncover the Watergate scandal, which forced President Richard Nixon to resign. Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) was set up in 1975 to support grassroots public service journalism. Journalists were proudly ferreting out abuses that had caused environmental, public health and safety disasters.

During the past 45 years, American news organizations – primarily newspapers – have played a key role in uncovering vital information about racial discrimination, corporate corruption, worker safety, organized crime, toxic chemicals and numerous political scandals. A key example is the reporting done by the Boston Globe about sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests. This story was central to the film, “Spotlight,” which won an Oscar for best picture in 2016.

But now, for a variety of reasons, the economic model that has supported robust American reporting for the past half century is collapsing. This collapse imperils investigative reporting and in many ways the effective functioning of American democracy.

American newspapers have historically employed most of the nation’s news reporters. By some estimates, about 80 percent of the public affairs stories Americans read or view are based upon reporting originally done by newspaper journalists.

One of the reasons American newspapers flourished for the past two centuries is because readers rarely have to pay for the full cost of their production. From the 18th Century to the middle of the 19th Century, most newspapers were supported by political parties. Then, as the middle class began to grow, there was a need by businesses to reach as many Americans as possible to sell their goods and services. Advertising fulfilled this need and soon newspapers sold ads to support their publications.

This was a win for newspapers and businesses. But it also was a win for public service journalism. Newspapers found that they could sell more newspapers with in-depth reporting and “beats” were established to enable newspapers to provide specialized reporting about business, medicine, the environment, government, the courts and other public affairs. Investigative reporting helped expose corruption by powerful business and political interests. “Watchdog journalism” had been one of the goals of the founders of American democracy. It was one of the reasons freedom of the press was enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

This economic model worked well for more than a century. Newspapers sold classified advertising (help wanted, real estate and cars) and display ads (department stores, supermarkets and car dealerships). Businesses, shopping malls and newspapers all prospered.

Like everything else in life, it wasn’t perfect. Economic recessions caused newspaper profits to wax and wane. And the rise of radio and later television reduced the economic power and influence of newspapers.

But it was the rise of the Internet in the 1980s that drastically disrupted this economic model. Online advertising web sites, such as Craigslist, began draining away the revenues of newspapers. Online shopping on Amazon.com began changing the way American consumers shopped. They no longer had to purchase goods at Sears or Macys in the shopping mall. As department stores faltered, they reduced their advertising in American papers.

Newspaper publishers were slow to realize the threat of the Internet and in retrospect made strategic blunders. To encourage traffic to their own websites, most newspapers gave away their news stories for free. They hoped that online ads would replace the lost revenue from ads in their print editions. (A few, such as The Wall Street Journal, did not give away their stories and they have in general been more successful.)

 To offset the loss in advertising revenue, publishers increased the price of their newspapers and cut the size of their staffs. A death spiral ensued.  Numerous newspapers, such as the Rocky Mountain News and Tampa Tribune, shut their doors.  Some news organizations, such as the Ann Arbor News, no longer publish print editions. Others, such as the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, have reduced the frequency of their publications.

The net effect has been the layoffs of thousands of reporters and editors. The number of newspaper journalists declined from 43,000 in 1978 to 33,000 in 2015. And there is little letup in sight in this downward spiral.

The most expensive reporting was cut first. Many foreign bureaus were shuttered. The coverage of state and local government was cut back. Copy editors, who check facts and correct grammatical errors, were laid off. And in-depth reporting by specialized reporters diminished.

Numerous experiments with new economic models have been tried with limited success. New online specialized publications have been established. But most publish opinions and carry out little actual reporting. It costs money to send reporters to cover school board and local government meetings. It costs even more to dig through public records and uncover corruption.

One model that offers hope is reporting carried out by non-profit organizations, such as Pro Publica, the Center for Public Integrity and local organizations, such as East Lansing Info.  These organizations usually have extremely small budgets and are supported by subscribers, donors or both.

East Lansing Info (ELi) is one of the gallant experiments in community-supported journalism. Similar experiments are being tried in Minnesota, California, Washington and other states across the country. There is no guarantee they will succeed. They require financial support by people who believe in their importance.

I became a monthly subscriber to East Lansing Info last fall. I also support other nonprofit news organizations, such as WKAR, the Center for Public Integrity, the Society of Environmental Journalists and IRE.

I believe it is vital to hold public officials accountable and that one of the most important ways is through the news media. ELi is trying to do this in Mid-Michigan. But it needs your help. I encourage you to help keep democracy alive by becoming a sustaining supporter of ELi.


Jim Detjen worked for more than two decades as an award-winning journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers. He has taught journalism at Vassar College, Drexel University and Michigan State University and is the founding director of MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. He also is the founding president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.







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