Monday, June 8, 2009

Where the Disconnects Are

Last week I posted a comment on the wonderful blog "Fitz & Jen" -- E&P's newspaper-business writers Mark Fitzgerald and Jennifer Saba doing brief daily updates on what passes for the newspaper business these days -- and we had a nice back and forth, but a later posting really gave me pause:

"I can read a summary a reporter writes about some (but not all) of my town's local board meetings. Some of the stories are good, some introduce inaccuracies either by the reporting, typos, or editing. That used to be the only choice you had unless you went to the Town Hall to read a copy of the minutes. Today all minutes are posted on the web within 7 days, and reading them I get more accurate and in-depth information.

"If I want to know what truly happened at a meeting, I don't go looking for a news article, I go to the town website and open up the meeting's minutes. That is a choice I didn't have 5 years ago."

Think about that. If I want to know what happened at a meeting, I don't trust an independent news reporter to tell me. I trust the minutes of the meeting. In other words, I trust the elected officials to tell me what they are doing more than I trust a reporter.

Thirty years ago at my second newspaper, we had a huge fight over doing "phoners" of suburban meetings. The reporters did not want to do them, because they would have to ask the board secretary what happened, and the secretary might lie to them. Or, it might be that 100 people turned out to protest something, and the secretary might say: "There was some comment against the proposal." Unless they were actually there, they did not write a story saying that something happened. Now, it was the immediate post-Watergate era when reporters felt that every town board was hiding an 18-minute gap somewhere. And yes, the minutes are taken by someone who is actually there. But is that the point?

The town where I live doesn't appear to post minutes, so I can't say for sure how useful they would be to me as a resident. But doesn't this strike at the entire concept of news-gathering? Even back in more stenographic days, the reporter was supposed to go and say what of importance happened. The minutes will simply report votes and motions in order.

"If I want to know what truly happened" -- I trust the town government to tell me in its minutes. I don't trust a reporter or a newspaper. And it's not, apparently, because of "liberal bias," though it may be. It may be that the reporter got a person's name wrong, or a fact wrong -- or it may be that the reporter thought this was important and the reader didn't think it was as important -- or it may be that the reporter thought something was unimportant and the reader thought it was --

But this bespeaks a problem greater than whether newspapers are printed, doesn't it? If the reader feels there is no need for the reporter to be there -- I can trust the government to tell me what it did, and presumably if I and my neighbors find from reading the minutes that it did something I don't like, we will go and demand redress -- means that the "press as a check on government" is no longer valued, at least by this reader on this level. And I think we know he speaks for many.

Now, admittedly a local town board is not Congress. Most of its actions are pretty mundane. And I have read some stories on my township board that were incomprehensible, and during our local-local days edited my share of stories in which a planning commission somehow managed to change a property's zoning, or a vote that was reported as 5-2 against turned into a clear the next day because it was 5-2 for. But the level of government was never the point, nor was the competence of the reporter. It was the eye on the public's business. If you don't value that eye, you won't want a newspaper no matter how it is presented.

1 comment:

rknil said...

The problem is that too many reporters were allowed to treat every event like Watergate. Even internal newsroom communications (before the current level of nonsense) were viewed with far more skepticism than they deserved.

Many of these reporters could not write. They were not intelligent. They could not find stories or guide themselves consistently. They had many deep flaws that made them liabilities within the newsroom.

They should have been fired long ago. Instead, they were allowed to do as little as possible, sometimes for decades.