If you don't buy this newspaper, we'll shoot your democracy.

Media criticism.
Oct. 23 2006 7:07 PM

If You Don't Buy This Newspaper …

We'll shoot your democracy.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters formulated the "Firemen First Principle" years ago to describe the agitprop tactics governments resort to whenever budget cuts are discussed. In the classic case, a city government discovers a revenue shortfall for its next budget period. Instead of trimming the bureaucracy across the board or zeroing out the Parks and Recreation Department, it announces that the best way to balance the budget is to close several fire stations.

The city has no serious intention of closing even one fire station, but by making the threat, it 1) pretends that every other fully funded department is more essential than the Fire Department and 2) begins to build political support for a tax increase. Sometimes they threaten to lay off police officers or cancel high-school football and basketball programs, but the logic is the same. If nobody sees through their threats, mayors and governors can often trick the voters into approving new taxes.

Journalists play a similar game whenever the bean counters order layoffs or buyouts in the face of tumbling or stagnating revenues: They equate the loss of warm bodies in the newsroom  with the end of civilization. For instance, in a Sept. 16 piece, L.A. Times' Tim Rutten warns that budget cuts at his paper ordered by its owners will injure democracy and the public interest. In a Sept. 30 follow-up, he bemoans the damage done to Los Angeles Times stakeholders (readers, the city, the state, the West, Latin America, and the entire Pacific Rim) for the benefit of the Tribune stockholders who own the paper. In today's (Oct. 23) Washington Post, media reporter Howard Kurtz calls the press the "the first line of defense against public corruption" and writes that the "corporate slashing" by news organizations will "mean fewer bodies to pore over records at City Hall, the statehouse or federal agencies."

I rough up Rutten and Kurtz not because they're chowderheads. They're among the best in the journalism biz. But they speak for most in their craft when they somehow correlate the full employment of journalists with the common good. If there is a profession that doesn't think it's essential to the steady rotation of the planet around the sun, I've never heard of it. (A couple of years ago, a Harvard political scientist got so carried away with waving the flag for special interests that he declared that bowling leagues were vital to the commonweal, and their decline a tragedy.)

It's hard to sympathize with the woe-is-us crowd of journalists when you learn that the number of full-timers employed by U.S. news-media organizations today has increased by almost 70 percent compared with 1971, according to The American Journalist in the 21st Century. The book doesn't even include in its census the new jobs in online newsrooms or at the business-wire upstart Bloomberg News.

The idea that a newsroom should employ X hundred staffers because it has traditionally employed X hundred staffers ignores the changes technology has made in the news market. For instance, Tribune critics denounce it for cutting the foreign bureaus at the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, which it owns. But should every metropolitan newspaper keep its Moscow or Jerusalem bureaus when readers can click to Web coverage from the New York Times and the international press, especially when many of those papers are losing circulation? Something's got to give.

Likewise, journalists don't want you to know this, but thanks to technology, it's never been easier to hunt down a story, capture it, and bring it back to the presses for printing. A middle-school student sitting at a Web terminal has more raw reportorial power at his fingertips than the best reporter working at the New York Times had in, say, 1975. The teenager can't command an undersecretary of defense to return his phone call as the Times guy can, but thanks to Google he can harvest news stories and background information that would take the 1975 model journalist days to collect.

The young amateur can also tap hundreds of free databases serving up scientific, legislative, regulatory, and business information in an afternoon that a team of 1975 reporters couldn't assemble in a week. Give him access to JSTOR, PubMed, Edgar, Nexis, Factiva, and other important sites and he'll write three stories in the time the '70s veteran reports one. Naturally, the kid might not have as good an idea of what to do with the information he's collected, but you get my point: Technology has made today's reporter more productive and more accurate than his forebears. So, if the Los Angeles Times peaked at 1,200 reporters and it's down to about 940 now and Tribune wants to cut it further, it's hardly proof that the corporate meanies are defunding the newsroom.

The fire station of daily journalism is, of course, the investigative unit. When speaking for their investigative units, newspapermen lower their voices in respect, the way Catholics might when discussing the College of Cardinals. Kurtz speculates that shuttering newspaper investigative teams will be harmful, but his piece doesn't give an example of a recently closed unit.

Newspaper publishers presumably fund investigations because readers expect them—or because they want something to throw at the Pulitzer committee come contest time. But newspapers aren't the only organizations trolling for investigative news. The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity has broken as many stories as almost any big-city daily in the last couple of decades, as have the Center for Investigative Reporting and Chicago's Better Government Association. Activist organizations have similarly collected countless investigative scoops about human rights abuses, environmental crimes, consumer rip-offs, and more. Long before today's newsroom budget crunch, newspapers were de facto outsourcing a good share of investigative reporting to the nonprofits, whose findings they trumpeted on their front pages.

Why do so many journalists inflate the importance of their role in our culture? Well, dentists brag about the miracle of dentistry, don't they? I suspect that the egotistical proclamations of journalists really mask the low esteem they hold for the total product they produce. If you fillet the average daily newspaper—cutting out the sports section, the comics, the crossword, the horoscope, the opinion pages, the entertainment coverage, and the special sections devoted to home, dining, medicine, travel, cars, real estate, and TV listings—relatively little of the democracy-enhancing, life-sustaining reportage they boast about actually gets printed.

******

Stumped by the generational reference of the hed and dek? See this famous National Lampoon cover. Send investigative ideas and dental tips to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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