Gene Roberts: Newsrooms Must Tell Their Own Cutback Stories for Democracy’s Sake

Gene Roberts said Thursday that American news organizations have an obligation tell a story they’ve been sitting on for too long: the consequences to democracy of the budget-driven cutbacks in their news coverage.

“We in journalism have not done enough, nearly enough, to make cutbacks in journalism a national issue,” he told journalists gathered at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York for the annual George Polk Awards. “We in journalism know — in a way that the public does not — that the last two years have been horrendous for journalism… In some cities, the decline [in coverage] has been breathtaking.”

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Roberts, who received the Polk Career Award for his efforts as a reporter, editor and teacher, argued that the failure to explore the consequences of reduced coverage “is not just a problem for journalism, this is a problem for democracy.”

Roberts, the retired executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of the New York Times, added: “What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon. It is past time for America to become alarmed about its shrinking news coverage, but it is showing few signs of concern.”

Roberts’ remarks came the week before the American Society of News Editors is scheduled to release its annual census measuring both newsroom staffing and the diversity of journalists on the job.

Some news organizations report the result of ASNE’s findings, and most report layoffs and buyouts of their own employees. But few news organizations have explored the impact of those cuts on their communities with the sort of rigorous pursuit they often display in digging into cutbacks in, say, local government.

During his 18 years as executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer (the paper won seven Polks and 17 Pulitzers during that period), Roberts was not a fan of news coverage about news organizations, especially their own.

In a telephone interview Thursday evening, I asked him about his apparent change of heart.

He said the obvious problem with news organizations covering themselves and their competitors — and the reason he published little of it as an editor — is the organizations’ own self-interest in the story. But he said the stakes to democracy have become so high these days that he’d figure out a way to get the cutback story told.

He said he recognizes that detailed reporting about reduced coverage could make readers and viewers less likely to buy a paper or watch the news, thus exacerbating the problem. But he also attributed muted coverage of the issue to “the embarrassment” of editors and news executives about the cuts they’re making.

“Somebody has to look out for the public’s interest,” he added. “I understand why they don’t give chapter and verse on what they’re cutting back in their own back yard, but somebody out there ought to be doing it.”

The text of his remarks, slightly edited in places, is here:

“I thank you for your generous and gracious award. And I also thank your for this opportunity to share a deep concern. The concern is this — that we in journalism have not done enough, nearly enough, to make cutbacks in journalism a national issue. We in journalism know — in a way that the public does not — that the last two years have been horrendous for journalism.

“A long, quarter of a century trend of smaller newsroom staffs and less news-hole escalated in 2008 into cuts we could have not imagined a decade or two ago. Every category of coverage — national, foreign, state and local — is suffering. In some cities, the decline has been breathtaking. Consider the Baltimore Sun, which serves a metropolitan area of two million people. In 2003, it had a staff of 347 after several years of staff attrition. By July of 2008, the staff count was 285; now, according to a former editor, it is down to 133. Information is drying up in the Baltimore area and in the State of Maryland.

[Note: Roberts said in our telephone conversation Thursday evening that he had not asked the Sun for its current staffing levels and wondered whether he should include the above material in this text. When I asked former Sun editor Monty Cook about current staffing levels for this January post to NewsPay, he said the company had decided not to release the numbers. After I told Roberts that, he approved the publication of his remarks as delivered.]

“We in journalism know that most of America’s news is generated by newspapers, and while the Internet has sped up the flow of news and its accessibility, it has mainly aggregated the news as opposed to digging it out. And when newspapers and electronic media cut back their staffs more things go unreported and, thus, unwritten and simply are not there for Web sites to aggregate.

“We as journalists only have to look around us. More beats are going uncovered or under covered. Reporters who were stretched thin three years have since had new demands heaped upon them. More reporting is done by phone and e-mail and it is harder to get out of the office and into the streets and offices where the sources are.

“The best of journalism is as good or better than ever, it is just that there is less — in much of the country, far less of it — than in the past. Some Web start-ups and non-profit news gathering operations are attempting to fill the gap, but the number of reporters they are sending forth is a mere fraction of what has been cut.

“This not just a problem for journalism, this is a problem for democracy. What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon. It is past time for America to become alarmed about its shrinking news coverage, but it is showing few signs of concern. In an era in which layoffs have become commonplace, newsroom cutbacks are taken as just one more twist in a bad economic downturn.

“True, most newspapers have reported their cutbacks. But they have not said, except in the rarest of instances, what they are no longer covering. The public picks up its papers and sees no holes in the columns and assumes it is getting what news there is. Of course, it is not possible for anyone to say what specific stories are being missed. But we know that most governmental agencies in Washington are no longer covered systematically; state capital coverage is down — way down; and so is coverage of some our most basic concerns — education and medicine. And, of course, there are stories — almost certainly many important ones — that are going uncovered.

“News is democracy’s food, and when it doesn’t get it, the democratic process is malnourished — even threatened. If we are going to come up with solutions, then democratic society has to understand that there is a problem and begin seeking answers…

“Our journalism reviews are aware there’s a problem and report on it; but those reports, for the most part, don’t reach the public at large. That is a task for us as journalists on newspapers, television stations, and the Internet. And we are failing. And our failure is democracy’s peril. We need to do better. We must do better. The health of our democracy is in the balance.”

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