What has happened to local and state government reporting in a time of legacy media budget-trimming, staff cutbacks and a loss of commitment to fearless journalism and truth-telling?
I’m sure you already know the answer, and it isn’t good.
That’s why I have been invited to present a panel discussion at April’s National Conference for Media Reform in Denver in order to examine the debilitated state of local government reporting across the country, and to discuss ideas to strengthen it.
The title of my session is, “The New Watchdogs: Holding Power to Account.” And yes, you bet, I believe that The UpTake is one of the best emerging models out there for making sure that the public interest is upheld in the corridors of power.
We’ll be talking about the decline of “accountability reporting” — the worrisome state of local political reporting across the country during an era of for-profit media disintegration and disarray, as well as strategies to improve this crucial type of reporting. To put it mildly, there is a lot of work to do.
I recommend that you view this brief video from the Columbia Journalism Review, which reveals (near its end) the disturbing and rapid decrease that has taken place in reporting from state capitols:
The ability to watch our elected leaders at work is a crucial requirement for a healthy democracy. But as legacy media have cut back sharply, both on the quantity of capitol coverage and its emphasis on accountability, our state and local governments have become less transparent, our leaders less accountable, and citizens less aware of what their representatives do in office. All in all, a recipe for conditions that lead to arrogance and corruption, unchecked by traditional “watchdogs.”
That’s where we come in.
Here at The UpTake, we do a great deal of State Capitol reporting. In fact, we provide more live video from the Statehouse than any other media outlet in Minnesota. Providing the public with an opportunity to witness and understand the workings of state government is what watchdogs are supposed to do. It requires intelligence, vigilance and, most of all, a commitment to the public interest that outweighs any partisan interest or profit motive. The UpTake strives to be one of “the new watchdogs” holding power to account and providing transparency to the public. And we’ve been recognized nationally for that work, including being honored recently as one of the new media organizations selected for crowd-funding by the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
We are very proud of the honors our work has received, but recognition by itself will not provide the resources we need to do the work we would like to be able to do here in Minnesota, let alone allow us to expand our reporting to other states.
Paying for the type of reporting that democracy requires is a very real problem. Most Americans are not used to the idea that this important work has to be supported by public philanthropy. Until recently, the News Industry’s business models were sufficient to cover the cost of things. But those models crashed and burned over the last decade and the funding gap has yet to be filled. Large donors who are comfortable supporting non-profits are not always comfortable supporting independent journalism that could bite their hands, if necessary, to follow a story. Credible news organizations must be willing to bite the hands that feed them when a story needs to be covered in the public interest. But, understandably perhaps, the number of non-profit foundations supporting this important work are not sufficient.
There are some good examples, fortunately, of advocacy coalitions that recognize that real, independent journalistic reporting on issues important to them has major public-interest value, even if it sometimes rocks their own boat. Midwest Energy News is one such initiative.
This environmental coalition has realized that fearless local reporting of the issues that matter to them will not be provided unless they step in to help make sure funding is available. Midwest Energy News does a good job of staying “independent” and, if the need arises, I believe it would be willing to publish reporting that might potentially displease its sponsors, because — this is crucial — its sponsors recognize that true journalism has to be independent, and courageous.
What is needed is a massive re-thinking of philanthropic models, an awareness that more voices are needed in a healthy media landscape, and that “public media” does not only mean PBS and NPR. Maybe the biggest re-thinking needs to be the focus away from “national” reporting and a refocusing on “local” reporting. In other words, a lot of this country’s media need to get the hell out of Washington, D.C.
I invited Shayna Englin to join me on my panel in Denver to help make that very point. Shayna is working on a very large study outlining the reasons why more effort should be put into reporting on advocacy efforts in the 50 states than in Washington, D.C. But to my mind, the same arguments apply to political reporting. It isn’t that D.C. doesn’t need watching, but far more legislation and political movements arise in the states than in the national capital –- meaning most of the real action is taking place precisely where massive cutbacks in political reporting have occurred.
Too often, this action goes under-reported or even unreported by a local corporate-owned press corps that has been cowed, gutted and put on a short leash.
The UpTake has been working on these problems for five years, since our beginning, and we cover what we can with our limited resources. Because of our live-stream reporting from the State Capitol and other public policy and civic events, we have become a resource not only for citizens in our region, but also for the remaining local political reporters. Many of them view our live-streams and, because of us, are able to report more stories as they observe our coverage from their desk or smartphone. We’re glad to be of assistance to them. But their reliance on us highlights the crucial need that The UpTake has for more resources to make sure that we remain on the job, watching our leaders do the public’s work, and keeping them accountable.
Until we can be sure that the dangerous gaps in political reporting that have arisen from the meltdown of legacy media have been permanently filled, your “new watchdogs” need support.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if we don’t make sure they get that support, our democracy is at risk.
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