Margaret Sullivan on the dark clouds and silver lining of covering President Trump

Donald Trump is a threat to press freedom and the norms of political reporting, said Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. But his presidency presents at least one upside for journalists:

There's probably going to be a lot of leaks in the Trump administration.

"I think that people inside agencies and government offices, many of them are people of good conscience," Sullivan said. "Many of them are very public-spirited. And The (Washington) Post and lots of other places have made it pretty clear that there's a secure way to get information out through electronic means."

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Sullivan was responding to a question about the recent White House decision to crack down on the Environmental Protection Agency's use of social media and interviews with reporters. Journalists at newsrooms with secure means of connecting with sources — such as The Intercept, The Washington Post and The New York Times — should expect a steady flow of tips from employees undergoing crises of conscience.

"I would expect to see a lot of leaking, which is probably going to be every bit as useful to reporters and citizens as official pronouncements," Sullivan said.

Her remarks were made during an interview for Covering 45, Poynter's podcast dedicated to examining how journalists are chronicling the 45th president of the United States. During the conversation, Sullivan touched on the death of access journalism, Trump's effect on the regional media and strategies journalists should use to cover the Trump administration.

Going live from the White House briefing room

Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer has repeated several falsehoods since his first official statement to the media Saturday. Among them: Trump's inauguration was the best-attended in history and that millions of people voted illegally during the 2016 election.

The unreliable information emanating from the briefing room is a blow to so-called "access journalism" — the notion that a cozy relationship with public officials can yield valuable reporting, Sullivan said. But that doesn't mean journalists should forgo them entirely.

"The press briefings are still probably going to produce news of some kind, I don't think we should walk away from them, or ignore them," Sullivan said. "But I do think that we want to be stressing a different kind of journalism now, which isn't the access journalism that the press briefings symbolize."

A turn to deeper digging

In this climate — one where the administration is peddling dubious "facts" — accountability journalism should be a watchword for the D.C. press corps, Sullivan said.

Journalists who are friendly to Trump may rake in scoops about routine matters of state, sure. That's why an adversarial approach is called for among the reporters assigned to cover 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Trump won't fix our broken business model

Some have hailed Trump as America's gift to the news industry's bottom line, noting that his rise has inspired public-minded citizens to donate to courageous news organizations.

But thousands of contributions to national nonprofits does not a sustainable business model make, Sullivan said.

"As someone who grew up journalistically at a regional newspaper and knowing how much that means to a community, there's nothing in this situation that makes me more hopeful about the fact that the business model has disintegrated," Sullivan said. "The business model at regional newspapers is based on print advertising, and nothing has changed there — it's getting worse. If there's a recession, we're going to see things really fall off the cliff."

Story ideas abound

But Trump has given local and regional news organizations a bounty of important story ideas to tackle, Sullivan said. As federal spending gets cut and the administration's priorities play out on the local level, there are huge opportunities.

The downside? News organizations have far fewer resources to cover those stories than they once did.

"For example, state capital reporting is down by at least 40 percent," she said. "...Which is where a lot of this is going to play out — on the local and statewide front. And when you don't have someone there covering it, you're not going to get the stories. It's a labor-intensive business."

But she encouraged her colleagues at smaller publications across the United States to dig in and do it anyway.

"What I would say to reporters who are working in small or regional or even large regional papers is just to say your work is extremely important," she said. "And I think it's the kind of work that holds communities together. It's a kind of civic glue which is extremely needed in this time when we're so divided as a country."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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