I found myself agreeing again and again with Post-Industrial Journalism, a report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. But I disagree with this statement, which received lots of attention when the report was released last month:
The effect of the current changes in the news ecosystem has already been a reduction in the quality of news in the United States. On present evidence, we are convinced that journalism in this country will get worse before it gets better, and, in some places (principally midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse.
I just Googled the part of the second sentence before the comma and got 321 hits, so lots of commentators have repeated this point in their responses to the report.
First, I must praise the report’s authors, C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky. They have written one of the most insightful reports about journalism that I have ever read. One of the reasons I have taken so long in responding is that I am in large agreement with them and didn’t want to write a post just summarizing and echoing.
I will deal separately with the questions of whether the quality of news has fallen and whether it will get worse before it gets better. And I will also address a broader question that the report raised. But first, I want to dispute the notion that the quality is more vulnerable in midsize and small cities with no daily paper.
I have worked in cities of varying sizes, from the small town of Shenandoah, Iowa (current population just over 5,000), to the big town of Minot, N.D. (42,000), to the small city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (metro population 258,000) to the largest metro areas in two states, Des Moines (570K) and Omaha (865K) to two major metro areas, Kansas City (2 million) and Washington (5.6 million).
I have trained and consulted in newsrooms all along that spectrum of community sizes in 44 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces as well as several other countries. I have judged journalism awards recognizing work from large and small newspapers. My current company, Digital First Media, operates in a similar range of communities and I have visited most of our daily newsrooms and several weeklies.
Of all the journalism topics I have addressed in this blog, I may be most qualified to address the question of how the size of a community relates to the quality of the journalism. And I can say emphatically that the size of the community and frequency of print publication do not dictate the quality of the journalism.
Without question, many journalists have long aspired to work in bigger markets at newspapers with prestigious names. The Des Moines Register, where I worked twice, was named one of the nation’s 10 best newspapers in 1984 (during my first hitch) and it has won 16 Pulitzer Prizes. It was the place for an Iowa journalist to work during my first hitch, 1977 to ’85, and we routinely picked off some of the best journalists from smaller papers in Iowa and other Midwestern states. And when we lost outstanding journalists, they usually went to even bigger newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune or New York Times.
Larger newspapers have resources the smaller newsrooms can never hope to match. They can “flood the zone” on big stories and allow reporters to work weeks or months on an enterprise story, while some papers couldn’t flood a zone with their whole staffs and need all hands on deck just to fill their daily or weekly papers.
But that doesn’t mean that the journalism is inherently better in bigger communities. Kansas City and Omaha are substantially bigger than Des Moines, but the Register in my first hitch there was better than the Kansas City Star and Times and the Omaha World-Herald, where I worked later (and many other newspapers in larger cities).
And, if you could measure quality of news coverage in some way, the Des Moines Register’s decline in the past two or three decades has been more severe than most small newspapers in Iowa. (But it still does excellent work in many respects.) The first time I worked at the Register, the difference between it and the Cedar Rapids Gazette was huge. By the time I arrived as editor in 2008, the two newspapers were peers.
The Gazette was one of the smallest staffs I have worked on and our coverage of the 2008 flood was the best journalism I have ever contributed to.
I should note that I have been commenting here largely about historic differences in newspapers, when the context that the Tow report mentioned size was in the future, in their forecast that the quality of journalism is going to get “markedly worse” before it gets better.
I also dispute that suggestion.
Here are factors that I think will be more significant than size of community in influencing the quality of local journalism in the coming years:
- Who owns local media outlets.
- The business strategies of local media owners.
- The health of the local economy.
- Leaders of local media outlets — both newsroom leaders and business leaders.
- The presence (or absence) of local media entrepreneurs.
- Talent and determination of individual journalists — both in established newsrooms and in entrepreneurial operations.
- How nimble local media (and their parent companies, if they are not locally owned) can be in responding to opportunities and threats.
- How much local media companies are burdened by obligations that limit their ability to adjust to changing conditions. These obligations might include debt, leases, vendor contracts, union contracts and lots of other things I probably wouldn’t understand.
- Local events that elevate an organization’s journalism. We and other Iowa media rose to the challenge of covering the 2008 flood. And I’m sure many Connecticut organizations (including my Digital First colleagues there) will do better journalism in the future as a result of rising to the challenge of covering the Sandy Hook shootings.
- The severity of staff cuts (and with larger staffs, larger newspapers may be more vulnerable here).
The upward flow of talented journalists to larger organizations has always favored larger organizations, and I presume this is partly what motivated the statement in Post-Industrial Journalism that quality would decline more in smaller communities. (I’ll invite the authors to respond and add any response they send.)
But staff cuts at larger newsrooms have stemmed this flow, as well as diminishing the attraction of larger newsrooms to talented journalists. Buyouts have stripped larger newsrooms of some of their best talent, and some of those journalists have returned to smaller newsrooms to end their careers.
The upward flow was never universal. Lots of amazingly talented journalists have thrived in smaller newsrooms, whether that was because their employers kept them happy, they escaped the notice of larger organizations or they stayed in smaller communities because of family or other considerations. I worked with lots of talented editors over the years in larger newsrooms, but few were as good as Mary Sharp, Lyle Muller, Paul Jensen, Rae Riebe and Dan Geiser, longtime Gazette editors who were on the staff when I arrived in 2008 (all, alas, are gone now for a variety of reasons).
Chuck Offenburger, one of the best journalists I ever worked with, was an outstanding talent for several years in Shenandoah, before moving on to the Register in 1972. He then spent more than a quarter-century at the Register, first as a reporter and then as a columnist and a beloved statewide figure. He never moved on to a larger market. And now, in fact, he’s a small-town digital entrepreneur, writing and hosting journalism about his own small town and Iowa issues, politics, sports and other news. Any evaluation of the quality of journalism in Greene County, Iowa, has to consider the website based there that has a statewide audience.
Post-Industrial Journalism did not significantly develop the point of why the authors expect the quality of journalism to decline more severely in smaller communities. But one point they made later in the report actually addresses one of the reasons I think smaller newsrooms can maintain quality:
At a smaller, nimbler organization like the Voice of San Diego, however, it was easier to shift this legacy process toward one that made a bit more sense in the current technological era.
OK, San Diego is not a small community, but the point about smaller organizations being more nimble can apply to the newsrooms in smaller communities.
The PIJ statement about smaller communities also referred to the frequency of publication, saying the decline in quality journalism would be markedly worse in communities without a daily newspaper.
This overlooks the quality journalism that some weekly newspapers have always done. As some daily newspapers cut the frequency of print publication, time will tell whether the move harms or helps their journalism. I believe Advance has cut its staff pretty deeply in reducing publication to three days a week and that might harm journalism in those communities (some of them pretty large). Or maybe new organizations such as The Lens will keep the quality of journalism level or even improve it.
Whatever happens in Advance markets, I expect to see some news organizations in varying community sizes develop healthy digital revenue streams so they can cut print costs without heavy newsroom cuts.
And I think lots of the newsroom energy at daily newspapers goes toward production, rather than to quality journalism. I expect that we’ll see some organizations cut back from daily print publication and improve the quality of their journalism, freed from the demands of feeding the daily beast.
That’s a lot to say about a single reference in that report. I will post more shortly on other points. It’s an outstanding, insightful look at journalism today and in the future. But I believe the authors are mistaken in saying that journalism will decline markedly more in smaller communities.
Disclosure: Emily Bell interviewed me in her research for the report and I am cited as a source, though not on this question. (I can’t recall whether she asked me about it.)