POSTED ON JUNE 20, 2012:
A Capitol Loss
On-the-scene, bloodhound journalism is essential for the future of American democracy
The phone call Jim Myers long dreaded finally came in late March.
After 22 years in the Tulsa World's Washington Bureau, he was out of a job. After more than a half century, Oklahoma's second largest daily newspaper would no longer have a presence in the nation's capital.
Whatever you thought of Myers' coverage ... whatever you think of the World ... this is more than just another ho-hum tale of the declining state of print journalism in 21st Century America.
It not only illustrates why many newspapers are sealing their own doom, but also amounts to a betrayal of the public trust.
The truth is, nothing is more important to the future of American democracy than an independent media taking seriously its role as the public's watchdogs.
And the best watchdogs are not amateurs sitting in their pajamas at home blogging about something they read in the paper or hear on TV -- or even professionally trained journalists working the phones from a downtown Tulsa newsroom, 1,300 miles from the Potomac.
It's on-the-scene bloodhounds who know the players. Who know how the system works. Who know where to sniff for the real stories behind the press releases and PR spin. Who know all about back-room deals and the oft-diabolical influences of special interests and money.
Thanks to the Internet, we live in an era in which we have access to more information than any human beings in history. One of the truly great ironies of the digital age, however, is that we may know more than ever, but we understand less -- primarily because we have fewer watchdogs on the prowl, ferreting out mischief and providing context and nuance.
And that is really bad news for the body politic, for our civic culture, for our cherished American way of life, where everyday folks -- not just a well-heeled, insider elite -- can demand and effect real change by paying attention to a vigilant media and raising their collective voices.
Like many newspapers in recent years, the World has shed employees and downsized its product as its advertising base and circulation eroded. Of course, that didn't keep the single copy price from skyrocketing.
I've long contended that newspaper readers are among the nation's best thinkers and most savvy consumers. But you don't have to be a quasi-intellectual, much less a rocket scientist to recognize that many newspapers cost more and provide less relevant insight into the world around us.
It breaks my heart -- I'm being serious, not melodramatic -- that few of my neighbors even read a daily newspaper any more, relying instead on oft-dubious Internet sources, rip-and-read radio headlines or infotainment that passes for TV news.
I am not privy to the World's finances, of course, but I am not unfamiliar with what it costs to operate a one-reporter news bureau hundreds of miles from the Mother Ship. I spent nearly two decades as Oklahoma Bureau Chief for The Dallas Morning News. It is not inexpensive to hire top-notch talent, lease office space, provide necessary technology and underwrite travel.
Like everything else in life, it is a choice. And all too often newspapers these days attempt to do things on the cheap, hoping for two things: bigger short-term profits and that loyal readers won't soon recognize they're being short-changed. Screwed!
We almost certainly didn't need a crystal ball to guess what the World was likely to do with its Washington Bureau. It cut its state Capitol coverage to the bone several years ago -- downsizing from three reporters to one, effectively destroying what was easily the best, most comprehensive daily coverage of state government.
With other, larger newspapers cutting their Washington staffs, Myers told me he knew his position was on borrowed time. But after escaping earlier World layoffs, he hoped to survive a few more years. He still lives in the D.C.-area, working as a free-lance journalist.
The World's experience is not unique, of course -- newspapers are cutting back across the nation. Three years ago, American Journalism Review conducted a census of newspaper reporters covering state government and found what was described as a "staggering loss of reporting firepower at America's state capitols."
From the first time it studied statehouse coverage in 1998 to its 2009 census, AJR found the number of full-time reporters had declined from 513 to 355.
The anecdotal evidence suggests the losses in the Washington press corps are similarly devastating.
It's often impossible to get those stories unless you're there. You simply can't expect to unravel the full story by relying on lawmakers or their staffs to return your phone calls. Too many times the elected class and their paid staff aren't particularly interested in cooperating.
So Tulsa World readers today are left primarily at the mercy of coverage provided by the Oklahoman's Washington reporter, Chris Casteel, whose interests are foremost those of his central Oklahoma-based employer, not Green Country.
Isn't it interesting that the World can afford to dispatch a sports reporter to cover the Oklahoma City Thunder in Miami, but not to station a reporter in the nation's capital, covering a congressional delegation that is involved daily in decision-making that affects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
I know, I know. The cost of a roundtrip ticket to South Beach, a week's hotel stay and meals is a fraction of the cost of a full-time, year-around reporter in D.C. But the point is this: You must decide which is most important in serving your readers and your community.
Yes, newspapers are businesses. If they don't make enough money, they don't stay in business. But they also are public trusts. And sometimes they have to make hard choices to cover what's important, not just what's the flavor of the moment.
The likes of Frosty Troy, E.N. Pete Earley, Ralph Marler, Rob Martindale and Jim Myers helped enlighten us all and made us better informed citizens as they covered the likes of U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr (the Uncrowned King of the Senate), House Speaker Carl Albert and the world's foremost climate-change denier Sen. Jim Inhofe.
What's particularly disconcerting about the World's decision to close its Washington Bureau and skimp on its state Capitol coverage is its timing: Given the great challenges facing our nation and state, we've never needed in-depth, hard-charging, top-flight independent journalism more.
It would appear, sadly, the World's decision-makers know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
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