Wednesday, December 02, 2015

More media insights: privatizing the news

Here is a scary and fascinating aspect of the media moment we're in. We hear a lot about the collapse of the newspaper and mainstream media business model. The internet broke the monopoly that newspapers and local TV enjoyed when there was no other way for local and even national businesses to put themselves in front of masses of potential consumers. Along came the creative destruction. Sites like Craigslist siphoned off profitable classified advertising. Display ad revenue fell precipitously. So the business of news gathering, especially print publications, shed reporters in droves. They closed their satellite bureaus, notably in state capitals, where much of their expertise resided. And in-depth reporting, digging for the story behind the news, became an endangered anachronism. It became impossible to imagine that there was a future role for young reporters. Journalism had been killed.

Or maybe not.

Via the Atlantic, John Heltman passes on his surprising discovery:

... I analyzed the Congressional Directory from the 101st Congress (1989-1991) through the 113th Congress (2013-2015), counted how many reporters were listed in each bureau, and categorized each bureau as either a newspaper, newswire, trade publication, foreign bureau, or online publication.

What I found was that there are roughly the same number of accredited reporters in Washington today as there were 25 years ago, but that more of them are working for trade publications and fewer are working for newspapers and newswires.

There are still droves of reporters digging into the doings of the federal government, writing their findings up, and earning a living, despite what we all know about the newspaper business. What's going on?


Heltman, who writes for the Water Policy Report, a division of Inside EPA news wire, explains:

... According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, the number of newspapers with bureaus in Washington fell by more than half from the mid-1980s to 2008. The number of newspaper reporters accredited to cover Congress fell by 30 percent between 1997 and 2009. The center is currently working on research to update those numbers.

Political reporting, however, has not declined at all—quite the contrary. Campaigns, scandals, and fights within and between the parties are covered today with an alacrity that borders on obsession. Growing partisanship and divided government have made the stakes of each day’s political news seem immense, as anyone can see by watching the endless flow of scooplets from Politico and Talking Points Memo, or who watch hour after hour of commentary on Fox News or MSNBC.

But while political news is everywhere, coverage of the day-to-day inner workings of government—the slow, steady development of policy in Congress, in the administration, and in the independent regulatory agencies, and how those policies are implemented—has become increasingly scarce in the media that average citizens historically have relied upon.

The opposite, however, is true of the “paywall press”—that is, high-subscription, insider-oriented news organizations ... This sector of the Fourth Estate is booming, and its coverage of government has never been more robust. Trade outlets are steadily adding to their staffs in Washington. ...The irony is that policy journalism in Washington is thriving. It’s just not being written for you, and you’re probably never going to read it.

Who is buying the "paywall press"?

... One of the big reasons for the trade-paper explosion is the massive increase in lobbying over the past few decades. In 1975, according to David C. Johnston’s book, Free Lunch, Washington lobbyists together made less than $100 million a year in fees. Thirty years later, they were raking in $2.5 billion, a growth rate ten times faster than the economy as a whole. Opensecrets.org, a website operated by the Center for Responsive Politics that tracks lobbying spending, estimated the size of the lobbying market at $3.24 billion last year, and that’s not counting the money many of the largest industry trade groups spent on advertising and public-relations consultation.

It’s not just lobbyists who are willing to pay for that insider info. The amount of money spent on federal contracting more than doubled in less than a decade, from $206 billion in fiscal year 2000 to $537 billion in 2011. Another big customer base—one more squarely in the targets of populist outrage—is Wall Street trading. The sector’s growth in the 1990s and 2000s meant that there was a considerably bigger pool of potential readers willing to pay for reporting on the latest information on, say, regulatory filings by the Federal Communications Commission—intelligence that might enable them to make smarter trades on communication company stocks.

Heltman describes this media environment in classic "one the one hand ... on the other hand" fashion. Paywall reporters for trade publications are not captives of the consumers of their product, so he insists. Since their product is not available to the non-paying public, it is impossible for ordinary mortals to evaluate that assessment. Big stories uncovered by these niche journalists do eventually see the light in the public press -- except when they don't. Hellman could have used an editor who excised or tightened some of this rambling, but perhaps editors in general access publications are becoming as scarce as reporters?

Yet he's on to something. The profession of news gathering still apparently exists and profitably at that. But, like everything else, its more significant expressions are becoming the exclusive preserve of the One Percent. Democracy needs what media gadfly Jay Rosen calls a "public service press." Going, going, gone ...?

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