What happens when we lose state government reporting?
The upending of the traditional business model of journalism has brought many questions and concerns, but among them, this is one of my biggest fears: are we losing courageous reporting on state government.
I spent my reporting infancy in the arms of a ferocious state reporter named Neil Shively, of the Milwaukee Sentinel. Neil was so intent on protecting citizens’ interest in monitoring their representatives that he refused to accept the governor’s embargoed budget. He declined the advanced copy of the budget, saying he wouldn’t agree to not write about it until the governor’s appointed time. Instead, he set off on a mission to uncover the key elements of the budget without ever seeing the advance. He succeeded.
The lesson this intern learned: when reporters get too comfy with officials, they lose sight of the stories they are supposed to be covering.
Today, I’m left wondering who remains in the statehouse to do the stories Neil did. His own bureau contracted, as have the staffs of virtually every other media outlet in the state. State government has not similarly contracted. It’s not as if we are collecting fewer taxes, introducing fewer bills or regulating less behavior. Add the tremendous influence of money in governing today, and you have more — not less — need for reporting.
Check this snip from a great Nieman Reports piece:
As the digital revolution devastates and reshapes the news media, I fear what’s likely to be lost in the shuffle is a next generation of statehouse beat reporters who will follow in the footsteps of people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Morgan, the Chicago Tribune’s Ray Long, Steve Walters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times. With their institutional knowledge, gigantic Rolodexes, and unending determination to afflict the comfortable and hold the powerful to account, these four outstanding journalists and others like them have been an awesome force for good government.
The entire piece is worth reading. We are not going to recover the old business model. What can we do to ensure courageous reporting as a check on state government power? Is part of the solution educating the public about new efforts to disguise partisanship in the sheep’s clothing of new independent news outlets?