Conservative Alaskans seemingly gleeful about the demise of local news media perceived as leaning left appear dangerously unaware of the handout-driven landscape of journalism in these times.
As reporting power across the country – liberal, conservative, libertarian, neo-this, anti-that and whatever – goes down, bureaucratic power goes up. It’s that simple.
Too much of the news is already reported by government mouthpieces. Too many of those mouthpieces are former journalists. Most of them went to work for the government because they generally believe more government is a good thing.
That doesn’t make them bad people. It does make them people unlikely to question their bosses.
Were this is all there were to the situation, it would not be good. But there is more.
Here is how things work as media organizations get strapped for cash:
- They get rid of older, more experienced reporters in favor of younger, less experienced reporters because the latter cost less. It’s simple capitalism.
- The older, more experienced reporters, by and large, gravitate to government in search of better pay and job security. As this is written, there are probably more former Anchorage reporters working for government than there are reporters working for news organizations covering the news.
- Because the older, now former journalists work for specific government agencies, they quickly develop a lot of knowledge about those agencies. They become, in essence, old-fashioned “beat” reporters. Only they don’t cover the beat for a news organization, they cover it for their government bosses.
- Given the information differential between the old, former journalists working a beat and younger, new journalists who know little, the former invariably take control of the story. They report it; they package it; and they deliver it to chosen reporters.
- Overworked, underpaid and still developing their skill sets, the younger reporters rely heavily on what they are told by older, more experienced former reporters. All of this defines the narrative which plays a huge part in determining how a story will evolve.
- If the story isn’t evolving in the “right” way, the older, former reporters tend to maintain connections to editors, usually former colleagues who are also older, at their old news organizations, and if a working reporter questions the narrative too aggressively(see #5), the former reporter-cum-spokes makes a stink.
- Usually the situation never gets to #6, because in the new world of reporters and spokes, everyone just wants to hug each other. But sometimes there is a troublesome, old-fashioned reporter. One such at the Anchorage Daily News years ago got a bad job review for asking too many questions of the Anchorage chief of police. Others over the years have been told to apologize to government spokespeople for being too aggressive with their questioning.
And that’s the way it was….
This is the way it is now.
As newsrooms shrink, all of problems listed above will only get worse. With few people trying to doing the same amount of work as many people, newsrooms will become even more dependent on government handouts.
It can’t be avoided.
Real reporting is time-consuming. Gathering, sorting and checking information is a laborious chore. Good reporters can do it faster and better than bad reporters, but even for the best, there is a limit.
At some point, it just becomes easier to rely on government officials who have done the reporting even if the reporting appears flawed:
“Hey, that’s what he/she said” is now the pat excuse for a lot of bad reporting . Nobody has the time, or sometimes the desire, to fact check the statements of government spokespeople.
And if a reporter were to find out they made a mistake, then what? At many news organizations, there is now no upside to challenging those in authority, and the potential for plenty of downside.
In the past a reporter would win kudos for catching a public official engaged in acts that resulted in his being charged with multiple felonies. Now, a reporter who does that gets fired.
In a world where journalism jobs are few, how many journalists want to risk losing their jobs over principle? Only those stupid or incapable of job-saving rationalization, and it is amazing the things reporters can rationalize.
Fewer reporters, unfortunately, won’t make any of the above listed problems better. Fewer reporters will only makes the problems worse.
But we’re probably doomed to live with it. The website Work + Money lists “newspaper reporter” as number 17 on its list of “25 Dying Professions You Should Avoid.”
“Given that circulation has been dropping for 17 straight years and Sunday circulation of the nation’s newspapers are at their lowest levels since 1945 — when there were significantly fewer people — and its no wonder that the people who fill the paper with news are losing their jobs,” the website says. ” Look for nearly 1 in 10 reporters to lose their jobs in the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
And look for government to fill that void. Many government agencies – from the Anchorage Police Department to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – are already setting up their own quasi-news organizations to cover themselves.
If you think news is slanted when you get it from an independent news organization that might or might not be liberal (the liberal tag is vastly overused these days), just think of what it might be like when you get all your news from government agencies employing liberal, former reporters to cover themselves and make those agencies look the best that they can be.