Print newspapers are dying. The evidence is everywhere and was recently highlighted on a Time Magazine cover.
Local government officials should be ecstatic about this event, right? Daily newspapers are much more likely to have negative coverage of local government’s activities. And if they do carry positive news, it is usually buried on page 16 of the “G” section.
David Horsey, wonderful cartoonist and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote an insightful February 15th column about the National Press Association’s recent awards dinner. That dinner was essentially a funeral dirge for newspapers. Note: Horsey himself may very well be out of a job at the end of March when his newspaper ceases printing.
Despite the plethora of negative coverage, I suspect most city and county officials are as quite upset about the difficulties of the daily papers. First, I do believe a lot of the daily newspapers’ coverage is negative, and I’ll cite some examples:
• Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle’s long-time Police Chief, has been extraordinarily successful as chief. Seattle is adding cops to its force even now, in a serious recession. And our crime rate is at the lowest in memory. Kerlikowske is leaving for a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration. So what do the mainstream media write about when announcing his departure? The Mardi-Gras riots of 2001. An event which lies at the feet of a sleeping Mayor Paul Schell and his deputies.
• Indeed, “crime” is the poster-child for negative reporting. Newspapers of all stripes regularly report the details of criminal acts and give neighborhood “activists” a forum to blast government about everything from failure to patrol the streets to accusations of racial profiling when such patrols are conducted too aggressively.
• Streets and transportation are another favorite topic for reporting. Rarely (but sometimes) will you see an article about new sidewalks or bike paths or street paving projects which are finished, usually on time and under budget. Potholes, mistimed traffic lights, traffic delays are frequently highlighted however.
• Although the City of Seattle invests at least $100 million annually in building and maintaining information technology systems, rarely are successful technology projects mentioned in a daily newspaper. Inaccurate reports about high electricity bills from a new computerized billing system helped Seattle City Light’s former superintendent Gary Zarker lose his job. And the one headline I’ve received in five years as CTO is about a botched e-mailing to 2000 cable television customers (which was, indeed, the fault of my department).
In contrast, coverage in community newspapers and in the trade press (e.g. for me, Government Technology Magazine, Network World, Computerworld) is considerably more positive. Perhaps that’s because those media outlets have small staffs who rely more on government for press releases and interviews to create their content. Perhaps they have a readership and advertising base which desires and reads news which is more informative, less “sensational”.
Given this, am I happy about the decline and impending death of many newspapers? Absolutely not. The investigative reporting which newspapers have funded has not only improved government, but also highlighted issues with private companies such as John Thain’s infamous $1.3 million office remodel while running his company Merrill Lynch into the ground. Newspapers have changed the direction of the nation from high-profile issues such as the Watergate Investigation and the botched war in Iraq to exposes such as toxic medicines and failed cancer drug trials. Just have a look at the past 20 years of Pulitzer prizes for more examples.
Is there a business model which will allow the local daily newspaper to survive? Time’s Walter Isaacson suggests a possibility in his February 5th article – essentially having readers pay for content on the web just as they pay for content today by subscription or at the newsstand. I agree with Isaacson that the “advertising” model is flawed. Not only does relying solely on advertising lead to ethical conflicts, but it also drives the need for sensational and negative reporting I mentioned above. I’m not sure that a micropayment model will work, and I have no other bright ideas to offer.
But I do hope newspaper reporters continue to be there to call me – and other local officials – even if they are writing a negative story!