Here is the opening paragraph of the summary of the Congressional Research Service's "The U.S. Newspaper Industry in Transition," (PDF) published on September 9, 2010:
The U.S. newspaper industry is suffering through what could be its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Advertising revenues have plummeted due in part to the severe economic downturn, while readership habits have changed as consumers turn to the Internet for free news and information. Some major newspaper chains are burdened by heavy debt loads. Between 2008 and early 2010, eight major newspaper chains declared bankruptcy, several big city papers shut down, and many laid off reporters and editors, imposed pay reductions, cut the size of the physical newspaper, or turned to Web-only publication.
One of the primary effects of this decline in newspapers' fortunes is that papers are now trying to do the same job with significantly less staff. According to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media 2011, newspaper newsrooms are 30 percent smaller than in 2000.
What this most often means, in practical terms, is that newspapers are now devoting significantly less resources to the coverage of local politics. It's a lot less expensive to run a wire service story or report on a local crime (the "details" of which are simply lifted from official police releases) than it is to pay a journalist to sit through and then write a decent story of a city council meeting. Newspapers simply no longer have the resources necessary for the proper coverage of city hall.
Last month the Los Angeles Times ran a story entitled, "FCC Report on Media Warns of Decline in Local News Coverage." In part, the article reads:
A new report from the Federal Communications Commission warned that the "independent watchdog function that the founding fathers envisioned for journalism" is at risk in local communities across the country.
... FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement released with the report, "The less quality reporting we have, the less likely we are to learn about government misdeeds."
That final point is well taken; this is an increasingly great time to be a crooked politician. No more snooping reporters asking bothersome questions about expense accounts and behind-door meetings. No more impertinent requests for public records. No more "public watchdogs" sniffing around city hall, digging into corners where they might unearth meaty bones best left buried.
We hear much talk these days about "citizen journalists." And it's good that we do; in some very real ways, citizen journalists are the only journalists left. The big dailies aren't covering city hall anymore. So if you want city hall covered, you have to cover it yourself. And who better to do that than you and citizens like you? Nobody cares about local politics like local citizens. Nobody can. The adage is true for a reason; all politics is local.
If you're a blogger, start sitting in on, and writing about, city council meetings. Get to know who's who in your local city government. Get on the email lists coming out of your city and county's primary government offices. Show up at press conferences. Attend public forums. Raise questions. Insist on explanations. Request private meetings. Help the people who work for the office of the mayor and other local public officials to remember that they work for you and people just like you. Help restore the balance of power between the local citizenry and the people who were elected to represent them.
And don't go it alone, either. That's too difficult; there's too much ground to cover. Instead, reach out to your fellow informed local bloggers. Join or form a coalition of local politico bloggers such that, after a while, your group becomes the go-to place for people in your area wanting to understand what's really happening with their tax dollars and local resources.
Be thorough; be precise; be professional; work in coordination with others. And stay at it. You'll get the results you're after. You will force politicians and government officials to be as accountable as they should be. You'll provide an invaluable service to your community.
You'll make a difference.
The fourth estate isn't dead. It's just got a whole new set of offices. And one of the best of those offices could be as near as your kitchen table.