This article originally ran at I Fry Mine in Butter.
Once upon a time, newspapers like the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and so on all had reporters posted in far away places from Moscow to Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro to London. These folks were part of a press corps that wrote daily or near-daily stories and sent them back to their editors in the paper’s home town. Each paper published different articles on similar topics, because the ideas around what was “newsworthy” were generally the same, although it was common for one paper to run a story and another not to, if the first paper had confirmation of all of the details but the second one couldn’t muster them together. This is how we all came to know the concept of “getting the scoop” on the competition. Political reporters tried to form relationships with people in the political arena, so that they could get first dibs on juicy quotes or source material. I presume that a lot of backroom dealmaking popped up in this kind of relationship. Agreeing not to mention President Roosevelt’s wheelchair meant that one got to continue to sit in the White House press corps, for example. Agreeing not to mention JFK’s many affairs got them something I don’t know. But something.
In addition to this reporting by individual news agencies, there were three competing news services that had their own reporting staff. Well, there were more than three, several more, but there were three most notables: The Associated Press, Reuters News Agency, and United Press International. UPI was kicked around like the stepchild of the bunch, but a certain Helen Thomas (I will submit here that we are distant cousins) was well known for being a quality journalist associated with UPI. These news agencies would have reporters in cities all over the globe, just as the newspapers did, and would sell the stories they wrote to newspapers, to fill in content, provide stories for places where they couldn’t have their own reporter, and so forth. They represented a small but significant quantity of the stories in any given city’s paper, but the main stories, the “real catches” were done by the newspaper’s own staff.
That the reporting corps of newspapers and of the news agencies were markedly white, straight, and male meant that the ideas of what made “real” news came through that lens, a rather narrow lens. But this is how the news media functioned for decade after decade, and it brought this lens to the new 20th Century technologies as they came into being: radio, television, the Internet.
There’s my cousin, back in the front row, but now writing for AP.
Today it is a different world. Newspapers, cautioned for 30 years now that they are a dying news medium, no longer have the broad bureau staff they once employed. While the New York Times maintains 26 bureaus internationally, they’re now an outlier in the field, the gasping far end of the normal distribution that has, like an exhaling balloon, been whizzing away toward the smaller side of the graph, toward newspapers that have only a few bureaus worldwide. In the void left behind by newspaper organizations, the news agencies have all but taken over, and now many, many of the stories we read in the paper (or more often now, online) are from those agencies. Whether I look at the Inquirer, the Post, the LA Times, I can find the exact same article. Just look under the headline to see the attribution. If it doesn’t say “staff writer” or “contributing writer,” but AP, it’s a pre-packaged article.
ABC News took a new step in the process of redefining foreign correspondence in 2007, when it sent seven television journalists with laptops and handheld video cameras to one-person bureaus around the world. Dana Hughes, an ABC correspondent based in Nairobi, told the American Journalism Review, “We are fixers, shooters, reporters, producers, and bureau chiefs.” Five jobs, one person. (The Yale Globalist)
But what’s the problem? Why even care? Aren’t we supposed to congratulate efficiency?
The problem is, we’re not getting the best news anymore. The fewer the number of people involved in bringing us our news, the fewer the opportunities to think about how to broaden our news, tell more stories, talk to more sources when writing and delivering an article to us. And while I’m not surprised, I’m sad to say that the downsizing of reporting staff has hit minority and female reporters hardest. Forty-four percent of American newspapers have no minorities on staff at all (American Society of Newspaper Editors). While there were inroads made from the 60s through the turn of the millennium, it now appears that we’re returning to white boy journalism. So with fewer diverse perspectives bringing us news, decreasing numbers of reporters in the field, and fewer media outlets, what kinds of content are we receiving? All while we herald first amendment rights to free speech.
I would like to remind everyone that the full text of the first amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (emphasis mine)
What does it mean if the private sector gives up on reporting? It’s not Congress, after all, it’s the private sector.
What does it mean if cost-cutting winds up costing us quality reporting? If all we see are shots of Paris Hilton crying on her way to jail, reports about some celebrity’s rehab attempt, the fear-mongering that Mexican citizens are infiltrating our country? If swine flu, volcanic ash, doomsday earthquakes, political scandals, global warming, health care socialism, and rogue uranium crowd out the airwaves and news Web sites? What are we not hearing?
We are not hearing about triumph over struggle. We are not hearing about progress. We are not hearing about needing to come together to solve problems. And any myriad of other news that isn’t polarizing, hate-instilling, us versus them crap.
I want my content back.