Bombshell Newsday exposé is the exception, not the rule, for local journalism
When a big shot Long Island politician was recently charged with swapping contracts and favors for freebie vacations and other bribes, The New York Times gave credit where credit was due.
"The arrests capped months of looming trouble for Mr. Mangano, a powerful figure in Republican politics on Long Island and the top elected official in Nassau County. He has been dogged by reports — many published in Newsday — that he had received free gifts and vacations from a longtime friend, Harendra Singh, a Long Island restaurateur with about 30 businesses in the area and several government contracts."
When I saw that reference, I dropped a line of congratulations to Rich Rosen, the paper's managing editor and an old friend, who then passed along a link to the project.
I came away impressed by the tough, old-fashioned reporting and the results it prompted. Yes, the defendants are innocent until proven guilty. But the coverage is honorable and exacting labor — the sort that few elsewhere would care about but seems essential for Rosen's area of coverage.
You won't hear pundits on the morning cable news shows discussing it. They're more likely to spend hours speculating about the latest campaign polls in "battleground" states or the latest Trump-Clinton clash caught on video.
But it's exactly the sort of un-sexy, tough, labor-intensive work that is imperiled with the decline of local newsgathering resources. Yes, Disney may be throwing $400 million at Vice, and Comcast is investing $200 million in BuzzFeed. But there's a fat chance they'll be doing this sort of local journalism with regularity anytime soon.
"For more than a year, a team of Newsday reporters searched countless documents, cultivated sources and did old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism to disclose the connections among Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto and businessman and political power player Harendra Singh," Newsday editor Deborah Henley said.
Much of the work pervades the indictments of Mangano and Venditto. And Singh, who was indicted separately last year, faces more than 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of fraud and bribing a former Oyster Bay employee. Mangano's wife, Linda, is accused of making $450,000 from a no-show job with Singh and is charged with obstruction and making false statements.
What does it all say about the state of journalism?
I sent the stories to Jack Davis, former publisher of the Hartford Courant and himself a crack investigative reporter earlier in his career.
"This is the kind of disappearing watchdog news coverage that citizens once relied on to prop up a faith that even small government misdeeds would be brought to light," says Davis, who lives in New Orleans.
"I’m afraid this is a dying genre, with newspaper staffs reduced in many places below the number of reporters needed for investigative work — and with newsroom management depleted of editors capable of guiding investigative reporters."
He concludes, "I expect that government officials and contractors are responding to being left alone more often by misbehaving more often. The public gets the impression that these granular-level government operations are okay, when the opposite is true."
For sure, there are some outlets who fully support significant investigations, including some in the frequent journalism wasteland of local TV news.
Carol Marin, a prominent Chicago investigative reporter-anchor, limited her thoughts to her longtime home at the NBC-owned and operated WMAQ-TV. They've been supportive.
"And they are giving us not just resources but when advertisers threaten to pull their ads — as a couple recently have — they tell us to keep reporting what we're reporting. They have our back and it's good," says Marin, director of the DePaul Center for Journalism Integrity & Excellence and longtime fixture on "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW, the PBS outlet.
Then there's Tom Rosenstiel, himself a terrific reporter who now oversees the American Press Institute and wrote about this topic in a 2015 Brookings Institution paper.
I sent him the Newsday work, too, and he makes two points. One involves "the shift in power from content creators to platforms (or content distributors). The second speaks to how "the real crisis in journalism is not technological, It's geographical. The crisis is the decline of local journalism. There is no shortage of people covering the White House or the campaign."
As he writes, for Brookings, "The great crisis for American journalism and democratic society shouldn’t be thought about at the platform level — newspapers versus online or television versus streaming, social media versus traditional. It should be understood at the civic and geographic level. The crisis is local. That is where the shrinking is most severe and where
there is least sign of growth."
He threw out various metrics and other evidence. When it comes to the move to platform from content creation, he puts it this way:
"One change that should raise some concerns is a power shift in our media economy away from journalism institutions that create content and civic knowledge to companies that build technology and platforms instead. In the first two decades of the web at least, content has not been king. Platform has."
When it comes to that geographical switch, meaning simply fewer reporters on the ground, his take is this:
"The other critical change of the digital era of news is away from what has been the traditional bulwark of American journalism — local news institutions — toward national. From the standpoint of democratic implications, this may be the most significant of all."
He mentioned one striking indicator of that trend. Looking at the most popular digital networks, only four are engaged to a significant degree in local content creation: Gannett, The New York Times, Hearst and Condé Nast owner Advance Publications.
"The same shift away from local news and local accountability is true if we look at a different list online destinations — the top 50 web networks that fall in the news category. On the list of just journalistic destinations, 36 of the top 50 digital journalism networks are national in nature. Just 14 are local, or even include significant local components."
He notes that his own definition of what might be deemed news is broad and includes the likes of sports site Bleacher Report.
When it comes to boots on the ground, he cited Labor Department figures that show how the actual number of journalists has risen in only Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles over the last 10 years, which coincides with internet-driven industry tumult.
In the nation's capital, it's nearly doubled, while in New York City it's remained unchanged. Nationwide, there was a loss of about 12,000 journalists, or one out of four reporting positions, with lot of folks heading to more secure financial environs in public relations.
As Rosenstiel puts it, "In other words, the crisis in American journalism isn’t that we don’t have enough people at the White House, though the makeup of that group has shifted, as Towson State University's Martha Kumar notes, citing the newcomers in the White House daily travel pool who include The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, The Daily Caller, The Guardian, BNA, RealClearPolitics, The Root and Politico.
"The crisis," says Rosenstiel, "is how few people now cover local, city and state councils of power."
It's why our hats are off to Newsday. It's too bad that more people don't appreciate the link between strong democracy and this sort of journalism.