Much of the world of journalism has quite properly been focusing on the trials and tribulations of our great national newspapers -- with the Washington Post's self-inflicted wounds leading the pack. And it is easy to forget amid this obsession the importance of Tip O'Neill's old adage: "All politics is local."
True, local politics, like everything else, are not what they used to be. But the fact is that our political system -- like our physical existence -- still breaks down along geographical lines. And whether people care enough about local news to pay for it is, sadly, an entirely different question than whether our democracy requires a strong watchdog function at the local level to ensure safeguards against abuse, chicanery, and outright dishonesty. As the ex-journalist and impresario of The Wire David Simon observed when testifying before Congress about the death of the newspaper industry, "The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption."
And make no mistake, the news is bad. Erica Smith is tracking newspaper layoffs on a daily basis at Paper Cuts. She has recorded more than 11,546 layoffs and buyouts nationwide in 2009 alone. The Chapter Eleven status of The Tribune Company -- owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times among many others -- is at the highest level of local coverage. The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy protection in January. And the owner of the the Philadelphia Inquirer went into bankruptcy in February. They will undoubtedly emerge smaller and weaker -- the LA Times is already a shadow of its former self -- but time is not on their side.
The clock already stopped ticking for the Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post back in 2007. The Albuquerque Tribune closed in February 2008. Capital Times (Madison, WI) ended its print operations in February 2008. Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed in February. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased its printed operations in March. The Tucson Citizen printed its last edition in May. And the Claremont Eagle Times (New Hampshire) closed in July.
The sage journalism observer Alan Mutter recently wrote that any paper in a major city with two dailies is in tremendous trouble. The San Francisco Chronicle, to cut costs, began outsourcing all of its printing in July. It lost $1 million per week last year. In March, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News started delivering to subscribers only three days a week to save on printing and shipping. The Ann Arbor News has adapted to a twice-weekly schedule. The Seattle Times Company, the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Detroit News are all said to be at risk for bankruptcy according to the New York Times. And the Miami Herald and Chicago Sun-Times are up for sale, but no one is buying.
Lest one thinks that the only loss involved here are the livelihoods of a bunch of smug, elitist, know-it-all running-down-America "reality" types, we've actually seen a spate of exactly the kind of local reporting that our democracy depends on -- the kind we can no longer take for granted as economic trends accelerate in the newspaper industry.
This month's Nieman Reports sported a piece by Dave Savini, for example. Savini is a backpack reporter for CBS 2 Chicago who spearheaded their undercover investigation on rotting pork. Savini, clutching a video camera, tailed a driver as he loaded thousands of pounds of whole dripping pigs, yogurt, fruits, and vegetables into a truck with no refrigeration in 90-degree heat. The meat was destined for a restaurant 100 miles away in Wisconsin, but Savini finally found a food inspector and called the police just in the nick of time. After a slow-moving police car chase, the driver turned over the food, which was then destroyed. Savini and his team not only kept tainted meat off the market; they broke a number of larger stories about how, for example, the state of Illinois only had six inspectors available to examine food trucks and, as a result, rotting meat was being shipped illegally to restaurants in and out of state. Savini's story has national implications for public health, but it never gained traction outside of Chicago.
And consider these recent stories from across the nation....
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.
Crossposted with the Center for American Progress.