“Where Have All the Reporters Gone?” Duh…

Doug T., back on this thread, kindly brings our attention to a piece by Walter Shapiro on Politics Daily headlined “Nikki Haley and Rand Paul Races: Where Have All the Reporters Gone?” An excerpt:

On the cusp of her historic landslide victory in the South Carolina GOP gubernatorial primary, Nikki Haley swooped into Hartsville last Saturday afternoon. More than 100 Tea Party activists waited in the scorching heat for the Indian-American state legislator, who had fought off two public but totally unproven accusations of adulteryand survived a Republican state senator castigating her as a “raghead.”

It was the perfect political scene to cap the weekend’s campaign coverage less than 72 hours before the state’s most raucous, riveting and, at times, repugnant gubernatorial primary in decades. Hartsville (population: 7,465) may be a small town in the Pee Dee region, but it is just 70 miles northeast of the state capital (and media center) in Columbia. But still there was one thing missing from the picturesque scene — any South Carolina newspaper, wire service, TV or radio reporters.

What we are witnessing in this election cycle is the slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism. I noticed the same pattern (and the same nearly reporter-free campaign trail) in Kentucky last month as I covered libertarian Rand Paul’s decisive defeat of the state Republican establishment in the GOP Senate primary. Aside from an occasional AP reporter, virtually the only print journalists whom I encountered at campaign events were my national press-pack colleagues from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and the Atlantic Monthly.

Newspapers like the Louisville Courier-Journal and The State, South Carolina’s largest paper, have dramatically de-emphasized in-depth candidate coverage because they are too short-handed to spare the reporters. A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) found that newsroom staffs across the country have declined by 25 percent since 2001.

Actually, those numbers underestimate the problem. At the start of the decade I had essentially 8 full-time people in the editorial department (actually 7, but I had a part-timer whom I could work full-time in a pinch without getting into trouble with the bean-counters). There are now two full-timers, folded into the newsroom. As for the newsroom — a separate department on a separate floor reporting separately to the publisher (although that separation exists no longer) — I cannot speak with any accuracy. But it’s easily more than 25 percent.

And near as I can tell, that’s pretty typical of the business. The people left are busting their humps, but can only do so much. So it is when the business model underwriting an industry evaporates.

And we see the effects daily. Our democracy is suffering from a lack of anyone to play the Fourth Estate’s traditional role. Yeah, you can get interesting stuff here and there from enterprising independents who go were the MSM reporters ain’t (which isn’t hard). But you don’t get wall-to-wall coverage, you don’t get “newspaper of record” coverage that lets you in on the totality of what’s going on.

I should add that when Shapiro writes of the “slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism,” it’s actually been much slower, much more gradual, than he describes.

When I was a reporter (oh, jeez, here we go; the old guy’s gonna tell us again how much better it was in the olden days), we actually had something that you could call “statewide campaign journalism.” I cut my teeth on state politics in 1978 in Tennessee covering the gubernatorial contest between Lamar Alexander and Jake Butcher. I was working at The Jackson Sun, a 37,000-circulation p.m. daily. For the last month of that general election, we had somebody with each of those candidates all day every day, traveling with them across the state, riding on the campaign plane and in the cars with them (and reimbursing the campaign on a pro rata basis). We went everywhere with them; we shared their meals. The only breaks they got from us was when they were sleeping, and we probably would have watched them then, too, but we had to write sometime. A typical workday ran about 20 hours. Your metabolism adjusted. Then, of course, we’d call in new ledes for our stories on the run. No cell phones, of course — you’d go to a phone booth, call the city desk and dictate the new lede — based on the latest thing the candidate had said or done — off the tops of our heads. (This, of course, required skills now extinct.)

This was an unusual level of coverage, even then, for a paper that small (how small? Think Florence Morning News). I remember a reporter from the Tennessean once saying — condescendingly, but I think he was trying to be nice —  that the Sun was the “little paper that did things in a big way.” But it was fairly typical for the big paper out of Nashville and Memphis.

By the time I arrived at The State in 1987 the standard of coverage across the country had diminished considerably. But still, we had the horses to cover most of major candidates’ important appearances. We didn’t get them with their hair down as much as we had a decade earlier, but the coverage was still pretty good. And if we ran short of political reporters, we had a deep bench. For instance, in 1988 I pulled Jeff Miller in from the Newberry bureau to be the lead day-to-day reporter for the GOP presidential primary, so that the State House reporters didn’t have to take their eyes off the State House. Today, there is no Newberry bureau — and no Camden, Sumter, Florence, Orangeburg or Beaufort bureaus either. The last of them closed in the early 90s.

Nowadays, reporters will catch a big campaign event if it’s in town, or if it’s big enough run to Greenville or Charleston for a high-stakes debate. But sticking to a candidate one-on-one throughout the campaign? No way. In fact, some of today’s few remaining reporters weren’t even alive back when we did that.

But yeah, the big cuts have happened in the past decade. Things started out bad for the industry in the first six years (killing off Knight Ridder, which used to own The State), then got dramatically worse starting in the summer of 2006, with the bottom falling out of what was left in September 2008.

So no, you shouldn’t be surprised if the South Carolina MSM is missing from a campaign rally in Florence. Or from the Alvin Greene story. Or from comprehensive coverage of the battle over the state budget. This is the way things are now. The army’s largely been disbanded, forcing a lot of us to go guerrilla. You’ll get coverage, and sometimes it will be inspired and even in-depth, but it will be spotty.

16 thoughts on ““Where Have All the Reporters Gone?” Duh…

  1. Michael P.

    How many times have you written this same story?

    It’s like deja vu all over again.

  2. Ralph Hightower

    For this, I have to offer:
    “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. Here’s the link to the original MTV video, when they played music videos: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x714l_buggles-video-killed-the-radio-star_music

    It has been my personal observation for the past many years, that companies are doing more with fewer people.

    I don’t want to see The State fade away. People who care about their community get their news from the local media.

    For example, The State has fewer resources to investigate political candidates. Cindi Scoppe of The State, devoted a lot of time investigating the candidates that NY real estate mogul, Howard Rich, was shoveling thousands of dollars to. Nobody at The State has that time available for investigation.

    Thankfully, The State granted permission to Gina Smith to greet SC Governot Mark Sanford at the Atlanta airport last year and broke the story of his infidelity wide open.

    But I have to say that none in the Columbia news media bothered to find out anything about Alvin Greene; The State, WVOC, WIS, WOLO, WLTX: all failed!

    I got more information than anybody in the news media about Alvin Greene, or the lack of it, compared to Vic Rawl from http://www.politics1.com/

  3. Brad

    Yeah, I remember that song, but it doesn’t exactly apply. If MSM news coverage is the radio stars, what is the video?

    Nothing is replacing it. Sure, you might get a report from a Shapiro or a Corey Hutchins or from yours truly that you don’t get from the MSM, which makes us look like Johnny on the spot, but you won’t get the coverage of EVERYTHING that our democracy requires.

    That, by the way, is how we got Alvin Greene. With the exception of a story by Corey that far too few people saw, nobody was paying attention to that non-race. The MSM and the blogosphere were going great guns over bits and pieces of the gubernatorial race (that is, if it involved Nikki Haley), but that was about it.

    The way you avoid an Alvin Greene is by having routine coverage of even the boring races. We are a LONG way from anyone providing that in a way that most voters have access to it.

  4. Walter Shapiro

    I’m the Politics Daily columnist who wrote the article in question. I recognize that the decline has been happening over decades but, as someone who has covered the last eight presidential races (including the last four SC presidential primaries), the absence of statewide reporters has been particularly dramatic this year. It’s not like the Nikki Haley saga was a boring pre-determined campaign drama

  5. Brad

    Thanks, Walter. And thanks for being there in Florence when our own press corps was missing.

    And don’t mind me, I’m just an old has-been editor who hasn’t been out in the field as a reporter since 1980 — although, as a blogger, I sometimes do a reporter impersonation. Actually, more of a tribute…

  6. Ralph Hightower

    Okay, here’s the connection: “Video Killed the Radio Star”; “Internet Killed the Newspapers”.

    We have so many other sources for news that were not available before. I read the NY Times online; I may read the Cedar Rapids Gazette if there’s a national item to redirect my attention to Cedar Rapids.

    The theme of “Video Killed the Radio Star”, I think, is that the new media kills the old media. I certainly hope that is not true because there are items that should be of interest to people locally.

  7. Doug T

    I’m glad you found the article interesting. It’s both sad and scary.

    I know he wasn’t the only guy or gal on the beat, but to repeat myself… Gee, I miss Lee Bandy. I hope he’s enjoying retirement.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    FWIW, my brother may be called back to the Philly Ink, so maybe things are pinking up.

  9. Brad

    You know, you just can’t talk behind anybody’s back on this ol’ InterWeb thingy.

    First I hear back from Walter Shapiro, and now Jeff Miller pops up via e-mail from wherever he’s hiding — D.C. or somewhere — to say, “Thanks for pulling me out of Newberry.”

    I told him if he didn’t keep hitting, I’d send him back down…

  10. Ralph Hightower

    Oh, that Corey Hutchins. The State is treading water to the Free Times.

    Local media need to have people on staff for investigative work.

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    Y’know, my mentor in civic activism, Professor John Stucker, has a favorite quote,”Politics are done by people,” which means, among other things, that it just takes one really sharp go-getter to change things. Same with the news media (uggh word)–no, the Press–one sharp reporter can make up for a lot of cutbacks.

    The problem with relying on the exceptional to solve budget crises is that, by definition, the exceptional are exceptions.

  12. bud

    All this constant whining about “lack of resources” on the part of the State is growing pretty thin. They dropped the ball, period. Let’s not keep making excuses. The Free Times got the Greene story. And no one can claim they have more resources. Let’s just call it like it is, The State newspaper is a sham.

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