Panel Discussion: State and Local Government
May 2, 1998
Discussion Who's Who
- Bauer, Charlotte – Assistant to Editor, Sunday Times, Johannesburg.
- Berkes, Howard – Correspondent based in Salt Lake City, National Public Radio.
- Berliner, Uri – Staff Writer, San Diego Union Tribune.
- Bradlee, Benjamin Jr. – Assistant Managing Editor for Projects and Local News, The Boston Globe.
- Burnham, David – Co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-gathering organization.
- Delaney, Paul – Former Assistant National Editor, New York Times, now involved in planning for "Our World," a newspaper with a black perspective.
- Marro, Anthony – Editor and Executive Vice President, Newsday.
- Purnick, Joyce – Metropolitan Editor, New York Times.
- Robbins, Carla Anne – Diplomatic Correspondent, Wall Street Journal.
- Schiffrin, Andre – Publisher, The New Press.
- Sill, Melanie – Managing Editor, News & Observer in Raleigh.
Joyce Purnick, the panel chair, led the discussion
We all agreed that to do the kind of reporting we're talking about, we needed not necessarily seasoned, but talented and experienced reporters.
When you're covering City Hall and he's the power figure (there have been no hers) that means something. That's the center of power where you sit. It takes a bit of time and a bit of seasoning to be able to say, in effect, you're lying.
We talked about ways to bring younger reporters up so that you don't have to wait years and years until you have very experienced reporters.
We talked about teaming up young and relatively inexperienced reporters with the more experienced reporters, particularly in investigative teams. They learn a great deal very quickly through example.
We all agreed you need experienced editors.
We talked about the increasing need at newspapers for specialists. If you're going to understand health care in the United States, less and less can newspapers rely, in our collective view, on generalists, sort of the meat and potatoes of newspapers. You need people who understand science. You need people who understand health care. You need people who understand economics.
The generalist can do very well and can sometimes get up to snuff on these subjects. But if you have, as we have on staff, doctors, who decide they want to write, lawyers, who decide they'd rather write about the law, the likelihood is that you're going to get more sophisticated and more aggressive coverage.
We talked about a reward system – the idea that newspapers, for the most part, do not reward people with money. We're not a high paid profession. But at many papers we have monthly awards. It's not the money, which in the Times case is $500. But you telegraph what we value. If you value investigative reporting, if you value aggressive reporting, and month after month after month, that's the kind of story that wins an award, you're sending a message to the staff in a much more effective way
than if you go over to someone and give them a memo. Everybody sees it. The picture is posted. That's how people learn the value system, the culture of what the newspaper cares about.
We talked about the need for better understanding of computer assisted reporting, and broadening the use of computer assisted reporting.
Now, on what we disagreed.
My argument in my Nieman Reports piece [Spring 1998] was basically that, the more resources you have, the more aggressive/watchdog reporting you can do. We're not a magazine. We cover the news. Every piece we write should be watchdog aggressive journalism – cannot always be, but should be. If it's not, we ought to find a way to remedy that quickly. But covering your bases, covering the news of the daily newspaper, spend a lot more time at news conferences having to respond to stories broken by reporters on a beat.
BRADLEE – I think where the rubber meets the road in this debate is in choices that editors have to make on a daily basis. Joyce looks at this question more from a paper-of-record lens, which The Times certainly is, and so faces more pressures to perhaps cover all of the news.
Smaller papers, medium-sized papers, like The [Boston] Globe, need to make harder choices and decide which incremental stories to simply let go. A classic example being a legislative hearing which might tell the story of where [a bill] is at a given time, but isn't the dynamo of that story; it's merely a stage.
If that story is going to end up in the obit page anyway, the thing to do is free up the reporter's time to do a story that ultimately will have more weight, more importance, be it a project or a shorter range Sunday piece that can go really in depth.
A key factor in all of this is people's time, the change in lifestyles. People don't seem to have the time to read the newspapers the way they used to. Newspapers aren't as important a part of people's lives as they used to be.
We've traditionally had five reporters at the State House. Politics and government has been a staple, a bread and butter of The Globe for a long, long time. But there's been sort of an ongoing debate. There's a mantra of let's deinstitutionalize. Too much of our stories are dry. Too much of them are about the machinations of state and local government, which, in the final analysis, people don't care as much about, supposedly. So let's take a reporter out of what used to be our bread and butter and put him in the general assignment pool and write about softer stories, lifestyle stories which some readership surveys show, people are more interested [in] than the doings of state and local government.
Personalize the news. This is sort of the cry that we hear.
That's a very delicate act. I would tilt toward less spot news and more enterprise news. Because, ultimately that's what's going to make our franchise unique.
SILL – Elections are probably getting the most attention of government coverage at many newspapers already.
What we don't do as well is cover governing, cover what governments are doing so that people understand why it matters who is sitting in those offices and who are on the county commissions and city councils and legislatures.
The series we did [on hogwaste pollution], I was very proud of but I don't think that it would have had the impact it had if we hadn't kept with the subject through a lot of very tedious study commission meetings, legislative committee meetings. Even around our paper, people were saying: this is about hog waste, how much do people really want to read.
A lot of papers, I think, go away after their investigation. After they get that initial response, it feels good. Task force set up. Problem solved. On we go.
That relates somewhat to what Joyce mentioned about beat reporters. If it's a beat reporter, then the issue is still there after the investigation is done. When you have kind of paratrooper style investigative reporting, where investigative reporters say: "Well, I'm done and I don't do follos."
Too many editors discourage people from going to meetings. "If you have to go to that meeting, can't you just set it up, write about the issue and then we don't have to write about the meeting." Well, maybe you don't have to write about the meeting. But I think, if you're not in the meeting, you're not really going to, a lot of times, understand the issue very well.
BURNHAM – It seems to me that the normal stance of an awful lot of coverage of local and state government is stenographic coverage of staged events. Some of the staged events, some of the stenography is necessary.
But it seems to me that every news organization, whatever its size, should have a full time commitment to covering the performance of the public and private institutions that affect the lives of, in a big city, millions of readers.
My personal rule of coverage, what I try to do, is [find out] what prevents these institutions from achieving their stated goals: Why aren't the schools teaching? What is it? Is it bad unions? Are they lazy? Are they badly trained? Is it stupid management? Why don't the cops do better in dealing with the crime problem? Are they corrupt? Are they sleeping? Are there inadequate numbers of them? It seems to me that should be an integral definition of news. I don't think we're paying enough attention to it across the board, across the country. But it requires experienced people who know the subject. It requires a real commitment on management.
There are some technical things that we've never been able to do. We can write about what government doesn't do, which often is more important than what they do do. How about the FBI? Last year, 6,000 convictions for drugs, bank robbery and small-time fraud against banks with credit cards. How many for anti-trust? Three convictions for antitrust from the FBI. Two for brutal police. A grand total of 126 convictions for medical fraud. And 6,000 for drugs? All of those things could be handled by local cops – or 90 percent of it.
MARRO – The question is, how do we make it happen? Most newspapers, even small papers, in this country are in a monopoly market. They have substantial pre-tax profits. Most papers could afford to do whatever kind of journalism they decide that they want to do. Sometimes reporters have to be much better than the institutions we're working for.
The question is, how does Nieman Reports, American Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review, all of the rest of us, find ways to identify this work, to encourage it, applaud it, and have more of it done?
Even working at a situation where newspapers don't have this as part of their culture, it can get done. If a reporter gets a very good story, one of the things I've learned is, it's almost impossible to keep a good story out of the paper or off the air. Sometimes editors don't encourage or underwrite or fund or give the time to go out and start it. But if it's brought to them, it's very hard to kill a good story.
BAUER – Somebody at one of our [Nieman] seminars mentioned that Washington reporters were the most interesting when they were at a dinner party and they were actually relaying in private what happened that day as opposed to when they're reporting it, because then the color and the texture and the atmosphere and the humanness of whatever issue they were reporting on, they allowed to come across.
BRADLEE – Ultimately, what we offer readers is a smorgasbord. We can't expect that all readers are going to read every story in the newspaper every day. The important stuff, albeit boring, like campaign finance, still has to be done, because in that case, you're writing for perhaps a narrower audience, the élite, but you still want to effect change.
MARRO – Eyes may glaze over at things like campaign financing, but the great, great bulk of the essential work of government at the state and local level is things that affect people's lives. So that's inherently interesting. It involves the education of their children. It involves health care for their parents. It involves things like how long the municipal swimming pools are going to be open and what kind of lifeguards are going to be there. Are they qualified people or just a nephew or a niece of somebody in government?
I just don't buy the idea that people will not read long stories. If you have a parent who has a child in a special education class, and you're doing a project about proposals to change the way they are structured and funded, those parents will read all the way through, no matter how many words it is or how many pages they have to jump, because that's an important part of their life, and that's what most of government does.
PURNICK – There are some subjects that – and I can think of many – that it's very difficult to use color, irony, anecdotal leads, sense of place. If you are tracking, for example, how a contract (as we did recently) was awarded. The reporter found out that the contractor wasn't the lowest bid, but he got it anyway. Then the reporter finds out that the contractor arranged through friends and relatives to make substantial donations to the governor, and the governor appoints the board that awards the contract. I don't care if you get a fine novelist to write that particular story. That particular story is not going to be a compelling read in terms of color, drama and irony. You've got to dot every I and cross every T in that kind of story.
BERLINER – Sometimes, I think the worst enemy of local reporting [is] the telephone. Stories get done by telephone that really deserve visits to neighborhoods and face-to-face meetings with people and observations. There's a trade-off, because the telephone is faster, and we can often get a story over the phone that might be in the next day's paper. The problem gets even more exacerbated with database searches, Lexis-Nexis, stuff that we never have to leave our desk to do.
BERKES – I'm bewildered by what I'm hearing. I don't think any story is boring. I think there's a lack of imagination on the part of reporters and editors. Campaign finance is a great story. People aren't interested in what we report about it, because all we report are numbers. We don't tell people what the significance is of those numbers. To me the issue is that, if you cannot demonstrate to your readers why that's important to them, then it's not a story in the first place. The truth is that those kinds of stories are going to be interesting to people, if they're told to people in a way that's compelling. What print people have to learn from television and radio is that we have to figure out how to make it compelling, because we have that more difficult task of not being able to write something down, show it to our listeners and viewers, and give them the opportunity to look at it again, if it's not clear to them. Our medium is gone like that. It's all the time we have. It's over once we've said it. So we have to be very clear. We have to be compelling in what we do. I don't know many print reporters, in my experience, who've learned that lesson and applied it to print. That's the challenge for you all in thinking about these stories.
SILL – We ran a story last week about a private nonprofit drug rehab center for affluent people up in the mountains of North Carolina near Lake Lure, which is where "Dirty Dancing" was filmed, to give you a reference point. The reporter found out that this center had gotten $5 million in underwriting for its construction, another million dollars in state money to fund operations. This is at a time when all the mental health centers and treatment centers are really struggling to find funding for substance abuse. So that by itself would have made a good story, and we made the front page. [The reporter] took the time. She went up to see it. She found out what it was all about. How it came to get that funding was pretty fascinating. The State Senate president had heard about this program, got interested. He just called up and decided that it was a novel experimental program that should be funded. Coincidentally, a few days after the funding was approved, he got a campaign contribution from one of the founders. The lead was about how the addicts who had come to this center to recover, are recovering not only [from] substance abuse, but also [from] the fashionable addictions of the '90s, the Internet, shopping addictions, and so forth. The writing was pretty important in engaging people not just in the outrage of the funding, but how it came about.
BRADLEE – The better investigative reporting now is on to good writing and how it connects to people's lives. [An] example: the Spotlight Team at The Globe: private profiteering off publicly subsidized research. Now, I don't care how you slice the apple, that last one can be tough sledding. We personalized it by finding somebody who had to pay thousands of dollars [for] medication that he or she really needed to survive. Theoretically, if the system worked better, that drug should be more readily available.
BERKES – That story was the topic of not only the Nieman group the day it ran, but other people I just ran into in town. People read that story. It was well written. It doesn't have to affect my life. It has to affect somebody's life for me to be interested in it.
ROBBINS – I just want to know how much pressure you're under from the Chamber of Commerce and from the big businesses in your towns to write happier news or more upbeat news. Because if there's bad news in the newspaper, can we get corporations to move here and factories to move here?
PURNICK – There's never any pressure at The New York Times.
MARRO – If somebody goes back for the last 25, 30 years and takes a look at Newsday, which is a paper that does a substantial amount of public service journalism, you'll probably find that there's not a single large organized group on Long Island that we haven't made very, very angry – real estate agents, car dealers, as a group, school teachers, builders, law enforcement officials, volunteer fire fighters, ambulance drivers, politicians of every stripe.
We have the highest household penetration of any big paper in the country. It's a paper that works because we do that. We alienate people in the short run all the time. In the long run, that's what our readers want. We have very, very low pressure. We get angry calls. We get a lot of mail. We just don't pay attention to it.
SILL – I'd say it's pretty much the same situation. We don't have that problem at all.
MARRO – What we tell people is, our franchise is our credibility. It's not the presses. It's not the trucks. It's the credibility. If we're telling people that real estate is booming and wonderful, when everybody knows it's in a down spin, that just destroys our credibility. I mean, that's the essence of what we do. We report on our community. We're not going to tell lies about it. It destroys our franchise.
SHIFFRIN – A word that hasn't come up is race, and the degree to which that forms decision making. I'm not asking this in an accusatory fashion at all. But, for instance, we just published a book on illegal Chinese workers in the U.S. It was interesting to see. We had [an] enormous amount of coverage in the Chinese language press. There are now [more] Chinese language daily newspapers in New York than there were English language papers when I was a kid. But there's been very little coverage on that whole issue in the regular Anglo press, even though the garment workers a few blocks away from our office in New York are earning less than they would make in Hong Kong doing similar work. It has to do with trade unions and the federal government and the local enforcement people, all sorts of regulatory agencies. That's just one example of a thousand stories that one is less likely to see. I just wondered to what degree that race is a factor in what is covered, what is not covered.
PURNICK – In terms of covering sweatshops, we had a reporter in under cover about two years ago and we recently had a front page story on it. We've had it episodically. Whether we should have more of it, probably, yes. Whether race enters into it, I'm having trouble even understanding how it could. I'm kind of baffled by the question.
SHIFFRIN – The question was whether there are certain communities within the country as a whole, whether it's the Chicano population in the southwest or whatever, that gets less coverage, or the Chinese immigrants or any of a number of other areas one could cover, simply because the focus of the paper is traditionally on its normal readers.
SILL – It's clear the answer is yes. Obviously, institutions, historically are predominantly white.
DELANEY – I think that the fact that we are discussing it is an example of our intractable problem. And it continues and extends to the newsroom as well. We, smart people in the media, have not found any answers. Racial problems continue to plague us. And I guess they will at least through our lifetime.
BRADLEE – The horse race coverage has become a cliché. I think the better newspapers have always done issues reporting. The question is whether anybody's reading it. Voter turnout levels would suggest they're not. They're tuned out. I don’t think it should take trendy innovations, like civic journalism, to get newspapers to cover issues.