Sunday, December 28, 2008

Anybody want to send me to Iraq?

Pay me, I'd love to go. I'd also love to cover Capitol Hill or the White House on a regular basis. But first, pay me.

This, in reference to the punditry/reporting argument being kicked around by, inter alia, Ed Driscoll, Glenn Reynolds and Jules Crittenden. The problem with demanding more reporting is that somebody's got to pay for that reporting.

Just last night, I was at a party talking to a lawyer who's done work at Guantanamo, and who suggested I should go down and do some reporting there. Well, OK, fine -- love to do it. But who's going to pay to send me down there?

You send a reporter to cover Capitol Hill full-time, and he's got to grind out a lot of story-of-the-day coverage on his way to developing the sources necessary to get the Big Scoop that (maybe) justifies his salary. It's an expensive proposition. The Politico started out with the two top political reporters from the WaPo and got more Drudge links than you could shake a stick at, and yet they're still in the red.

Meanwhile, the journalistic "farm system" is drying up. I talk to my old newspaper buddies in Georgia and the horror stories they tell! A 5% across-the-board pay cut, on salaries that were already pathetically low. The alternative was company-wide layoffs, even though they've already cut their news staffs to the bone. Similar stories abound throughout the news industry, and are much, much worse at community newspapers in small-to-medium markets where "liberal bias" isn't even possible as an explanation.

The Internet has not (yet) generated the kind of revenue stream necessary to fund (many) full-time reporters. Paul Mulshine has a point, even if he shouldn't have attacked Insty to make it. With every passing week, there are fewer and fewer reporters to cover the basics of the news -- school boards, county commission meetings, cops-and-courts, etc. The result is a less-informed citizenry, and this is a real loss.

UPDATE: Don Surber has more thoughts. I think I'm about as blogger-friendly as any journalist on the planet, and hostility between bloggers and reporters strikes me as atavistic. There is a lot of misunderstanding on both sides.

What do bloggers do? Well, they do a lot of different things, but the most important thing the news/politics blogger does is aggregate -- they sift through news to find what interests him, links it and comments on it. In this, the blogger functions somewhat like a newspaper editor, except that (a) he doesn't assign stories to reporters, and (b) generally, he doesn't feel the need to provide comprehensive coverage.

On point (b): Bloggers take for granted that the reader is surfing around through multiple information sources and, if he wants the latest news on the Caylee Anthony murder or the coup in Guinea, he'll find that somewhere. No blog is or aspires to be a one-stop news outlet, which leaves the blogger free to aggregate and comment on the news that seems to him most interesting or where he thinks he can gain more readers. (I blog about politics, but I also blog about Christina Hendricks, because somebody has to.)

Which leaves us with point (a): While there are bloggers who do reporting, and other bloggers who do online research that substantially enhances the news content they provide, there is no blog that can deploy people to do first-source reporting in the way that newspapers, wire services and other Old Media news organizations do.

This is where a lot of bloggers go off track in criticizing Old Media. The cult of "professionalism" in journalism produces a backlash, so that intelligent people outside the news business look with resentment toward industry insiders as some sort of privileged caste. Too many journalists emit messages of elitism: "We know what we're doing because we're professionals -- and since you're not a professional journalist, your criticisms of us have no credibility." There is a circular logic here that is infuriating.

As infuriating as this kind of media snobbery may be, it does not negate the fact that somebody has to do the first-source reporting, and it is that kind of reporting that is being jeopardized by the deep cuts in newsroom staffs. I love the blogosphere, but certainly in the near term, blogs are not going to fill the void created by the evisceration of American newsrooms.

Do a thought experiment: Suppose that Pajamas Media wanted to establish a Washington bureau. At the very minimum, you'd need three full-time staffers: One for the White House, one for Congress, and a "swing" reporter who'd cover the departments and agencies (Justice, State, Pentagon, etc.) while backstopping the other two. Even lowballing the salaries, you'd be looking at something like $120,000-$150,000 a year for that three-man bureau, not including benefits, payroll taxes, etc. (This assumes the bureau would have no actual brick-and-mortar office. It also assumes no travel budget, so when the president flies off to Brussels for a G8 summit, you don't get on-the-spot reporting.)

Would the reporting produced by a three-man shoestring D.C. bureau justify such an investment for an online operation like PJM? Consider that Cox Enterprises -- which owns 17 papers and generates annual revenue of $15 billion -- recently closed its D.C. bureau. If having a Washington bureau doesn't make sense for a giant media conglomerate like Cox, how does it make sense for PJM?

However much you loathe Old Media, then, the shriveling of the press corps must inevitably result in less reporting, and it is very difficult to see how New Media can ameliorate that loss.

UPDATE: Linked at Political Byline and Pirate's Cove (with bonus pinup).


  1. The result is a less-informed citizenry, and this is a real loss.
    You don't think that the information vacuum will be filled by social networks and such?
    If there was tangible objectivity in full-time reporting, I'd be happier to fund it, like I do one war correspondent with a nominal amount.

  2. I would be the era of FT reporters is coming to a close. The business model will be freelancers on the reporting and offshoring for the writing. May be you should consider going into broadcast.

  3. The Detroit Free Press and their fellow Detroit News have already gone to THREE day home delivery (Thurs, Fri, Sun). When they did that earlier in December there were quite a few "head honchos" in town to watch the conversion from a lot of big city papers...

    Expect very big cuts in expenditures for the newspaper industry. My own company (shouldn't be too hard to figure out who I work for) cut 10% of staff in December, the fourth reduction in two years. The other big newspaper companies have cut loads more.

    And it isn't just news paper or print news that has been hit, broadcast television has been reducing staff on pace with the print industry.

    As recently as 2007 most medium to large market papers were VERY profitable; the average being around 22 cents profit on every dollar of revenue. That was with simple "soft" subscription numbers. It will be interesting to see what the profit margins are for 2008 with the housing and auto industries crashing. Those two industries represent the bulk of advertising for newspapers.

    And it will be interesting to see how small the newshole shrinks -- will local rags simply become ad wrappers?

  4. I suscribe to the Phila. Inquirer and the WSJ.

    The Inquirer sucks - way too liberal for my taste but its sports section is fine. My pet peeve with the Inky is it seems to just take press releases from the governor's office and cut and paste them into "news stories". They also cover national news and prvide opinion like a good liberal would.

    In the best of both worlds, my daily newspaper would be a combo of my Wall Street Journal (for nation, world, business news) and the Inquirer for sports with a beefed-up emphasis on state and local issues.

    I am surprised if no one is working on that type of arrangement.

    Lastly,conservatives should spend their ad money on a "Parade" type supplement that would be delivered nationwide with every local newspaper.

  5. {I've had heel-toe watches for 4 days but feel so strongly I'm writing anyway b4 sack-time... please forgive my fuzziness.}

    "... Similar stories abound throughout the news industry, and are much, much worse at community newspapers in small-to-medium markets where "liberal bias" isn't even possible as an explanation."*
    Some thoughts:

    *: Are you trying to convince us, or yourself?

    Unless local papers are vastly different where you live: horsefeathers! During my 26yrs in the USAF, I've lived almost everywhere in CONUS there's a base. I've watchd local papers drift frm Rightish-center to unabashedly Left . In my experience the only local papers that are still even remotely non-lefty are the so-called "penny-savers". These papers are usually produced by the same time honored methods used by Ben Franklin: the Publisher/Editor/Head-of-Sales, etc is the guy who owns it, and it rests heavily on the exchange of items in the local area.

    These papers can't afford the quackery of other local papers: if people stop buying it, (or reading, if production is underwritten by personals) the guy's family can't afford to eat. He has to give people what they want, not shove his views down their throats.

    Your booster-ism for what's become of "professional journalism" & "professional" journalists - while an understandable display of fraternal loyaly - simply doesn't square.

    At any "School of Journalism", pose this question: "why do you want to be a Journalist?" You'll receive The Miss America Answer: " make a difference." They want to propagandize, not record. Has no one told them that to "make a difference", yes, write opinion pieces! Just identify them as such, not as "straight news"!

    Why blame readers if they've had enough of "Advocacy Journalism" which tramples only the side trying to uphold Western Civilization? Let these papers print what people want to read and they'll become solvent.

    I do enjoy your stuff, though.
    Good night & Merry (belated) Christmas!

  6. It won't be long before newspapers must charge the major sports teams for their sports coverage.

    I don't ses anything wrong with that.

  7. There are a lot more conservative newspapers in this country than people think. They're more often small newspapers in small cities and towns, and they don't get the kind of attention larger newspapers receive. While I've never seen a breakdown of liberal-centrist-conservative newspaper ad and subscription sales, my guess is that conservative papers aren't, as a class, doing any better than other newspapers. The decline in newspaper sales isn't a political movement. It's an inability to compete effectively with newer media (like this blog).

  8. Spitzen:

    You are right in one way. There is a wave of digital news beating down the old media.

    However, you are wrong about right-leaning news papers. It is the left leaning papers that are suffering the biggest drops in circulation. Just look at any recent year-to-year circulation figuess. The most liberal papers have indeed suffered the largest drops. These include the SF Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constititution, NYT, Boston Globe and a few others.

    While the NY Post has actually mantained its circluations.

  9. I am sure all that will be fixed with the fairness doctrine.

  10. AJ Lynch: The New York Post and the San Antonio Express make a case for your idea that conservative papers are retaining or even building circulation (in the San Antonio paper's case). But I'll stick with my idea that political stance isn't much of a determining factor on circulation. Circulation is declining in many convervative newspaper markets, but those markets get less attention precisely because they're not the big fish like San Francisco, Atlanta, etc. Small market circulation isn't declining as badly, but those markets offer less new-media alternatives. As that hole is filled, small-market newspapers will see the decline increase precipitously. Unless it's the newspapers that fill that void. And that's not what's happening where I am.