After Howard Kurtz issued what I characterized as the common, kneejerk newsroom response to threats of cutbacks — oh, woe is journalism; ah, what will become of investigative reporting? — many of us piled on to say that newsrooms are bloated and need cutting — or more to the point, need to cut the crap so they can focus on what matters. Kurtz responds , quoting Jack Shafer and me and saying:
Not to spoil a good food fight, but I don’t disagree with any of that. Some newspapers are overstaffed. Not all budget cuts are bad. Not every newspaper in America needs to have a reporter covering the White House, or London, or attending political conventions and writing the same pap as everyone else. What’s more, lest they suffer the fate of General Motors by churning out gas-guzzlers, they need to move more boldly into the digital age, which probably requires smaller newsrooms than in the past as print circulations decline.
Here comes the ‘but’ . . .
But many of the corporate executives ordering these cuts don’t care about finding innovative ways to cover the news; they just want to please Wall Street by getting the payroll down.
But shouldn’t it be up to the editors of these newspapers to find those innovative ways to cover the news and to help the institution and its value survive the transition to the new world? Instead, we see editors stomping their feet, refusing to cut back as if there is no need to, as if it’s just some big, bad, greedy biz guys — instead of a post-monopoly market reality — forcing them to fire. Kurtz continues:
Investigative reporting doesn’t just mean maintaining separate SWAT teams. Beat reporters do important digging all the time, but that requires having a few extra days or weeks to pursue leads and pore over records. If, in depleted newsrooms, they have to churn out copy every other hour, the chances that they’ll look into the mayor’s land deal or the congressman’s favors for big contributors are greatly diminished.
But who says that kind of reporting is what should be depleted? If editors have the good sense and foresight to get rid of what’s not needed, they can put their resources where they matter: into reporting. And they can also find new ways to report. Kurtz:
Newspapers — good ones, at least — do two things that, if their staffs shrivel, no TV station, Web site or blogger will be able to match. One is to provide detailed local coverage of schools, hospitals, zoning battles and town councils. The other is holding public officials and business executives accountable with aggressive investigative work.
No one is saying that bloggers will replace journalists; let’s eliminate that red herring from the playbook. But bloggers can help. And the truth is that most metro papers and many local papers do a terrible job covering local schools and town councils; bloggers and other cooperative efforts in networked journalism could, indeed, increase a paper’s coverage as never before possible. And as for investigative efforts: Yes, we need more. Yes, we need reporters doing more. But here, again, when you open up to help, you may be able to report in new ways. Witness the Porkbusters, et al outing of Senators Byrd’s and Stevens’ secret hold on Congressional accountability legislation. I’m not saying that will replace investigative staffs but it can help, if you let it. Kurtz concludes:
They are also tradition-encrusted places that need to become less cautious, less stuffy and less arrogant. But if the critics think that a starvation diet will somehow produce healthier reporting, they are fantasizing.
The fantasizing we see in in newsrooms that believe newspapers can and should continue with business-as-usual, that newsrooms need to be as big as they are to get their real job done, and that they are doing a good job now.
I continue to believe that cutbacks will force newspapers to decide what they really are. The brave, wise, and strategic editors will get rid of the crap and invest more in the kind of reporting Kurtz properly celebrates. The wussy, job-protecting editors will do just what we see them doing: whining.
: At the end of Kurtz’ response, a bold headline said, “End of discussion.” That took me aback. Cheeky, I thought until I saw that it was the subhead over the next item. This discussion is far from over.
: See also the response of Jeff Crigler of Voxant.