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Can MSM adapt to the web and do its job of exposing corruption?

This morning Roy Greenslade recorded in his Guardian blog that the San Jose Mercury is to cut 40 editorial jobs. In the main paper there was a report that the Freedom of Information Commissioner needs extra funds to cope with backlog of appeals against government bodies that have refused to release information.

On the face of it there is nothing to connect the two stories. The link is that they are both symptoms of concerns about the ability of the media to hold politicians and public bodies to account.

Investigative reporting has for far too long been low on the agenda of British newspapers with too few reporters for this time consuming and expensive work.

In the United States, by comparison, these skills have thrived. They have developed techniques of database analysis and the use of computerised mapping to identify links between different sets of information, which are hardly known here. They have also had a lot more reporters in their newsrooms to pore over reports and hit the streets with notebooks to dig out the facts.

So a first reaction to the news that the owners of another Californian newspaper, the Los Angeles Times wanted to cut the newsroom staff from 940 to 800 was that it was a luxury to have that many people. But the LA Times had already lost 260 jobs in the past four years. Together that is 400 jobs, a third of the newsroom.

Howard Kurtz, in the Washington Post (newsroom recently cut by 8% through early retirements) this week linked the LA Times job cuts to a corruption story in the same paper about a Congressman. He wrote:

It’s striking how many of the major probes involving members of Congress were launched because of news accounts, which have become the first line of defense against public corruption. While journalists may lack subpoena power and eavesdropping authority, they often crack these cases ahead of the cops.

Kurtz ran through a series of investigative stories and job cuts across America saying that anyone who thought investigative projects were unaffected by the slashing of jobs did not know the business. He concluded:

If this erosion continues, it would be bad news for serious journalism, and good news for corrupt politicians.

Much the same point was made during the summer by Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He wrote in the Dallas Morning News:

For too long, the news industry has regarded investigative reporting as too time-consuming and costly. (And that attitude continues. Just last month, Time magazine laid off two of the best investigative reporters in our time because they were “too expensive.”)

Media owners also have seen investigative reporting as a “niche” kind of reporting: nice for the sake of public service and awards-gathering, but not really a daily concern.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that investigative reporting may be the beleaguered newspaper industry’s best franchise for the future.

Investigative reporting distinguishes journalists from agenda-pushing bloggers, from advocacy talk shows that parade as fair and balanced, and from the shallow reporting that happens when Wall Street pressures newsrooms to cut staffs.

The worth of investigative reporting is not measured in constant bean-counting, but in how well it serves the public interest. Solid investigative reporting demonstrates the credibility of a vigilant press, as well as the need for one – a need that’s greater than ever.

Much of what Kurtz and Houston fear in the US has already happened in the UK where too few newsrooms have resources for large investigations.

The Freedom of Information Act has helped fill the gap, giving us a new way to probe Government and official bodies. Now the government is looking for ways to curtail the release of information with Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, proposing the rejection of more requests on the grounds that they were “too expensive to answer”. And today we learned that there is a backlog of 1,245 appeals against refusals to release information.

It is not only a matter of fewer people in newsrooms but that those who remain are expected to do extra things — writing for web as well as print, preparing podcasts, and blogging.

With advertising revenues down all round (ITV is expected to show a 13% decline this year) and income from newspaper and magazine circulation falling, the loss of jobs is likely to continue. With this happening at a time when more people are needed to cope with transition and convergence it is bound to be the more expensive bits of journalism, like investigating corruption, that suffer most.

The conundrum is, how do we manage the move to the web which is said to be “democratising the media” without damaging democracy?

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  1. Wordblog » Blog Archive » ‘Journopopulists’ for job cuts says

    […] With 800 editorial staff after the cuts, the LA Times staffing, like that of most US newspapers, looks extremely generous by UK standards. Last week I wrote: “Investigative reporting has for far too long been low on the agenda of British newspapers with too few reporters for this time consuming and expensive work.” […]