At a time when technology has blessed – or cursed – us with more sources of information than ever, a report last week by the Federal Communications Commission warned of a shortage of a specific kind of news.
“In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting,” the report said. “This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability – more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism – going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy – is in some cases at risk at the local level.”
Remember, that’s the government talking.
Technology has provided wonderful new ways for traditional media to gather and share information. Our photographers shoot and send photos directly from the field. Reporters take their laptops to city council meetings and report important decisions as the gavel drops. We transmit stories via our website, to cell phones and mobile tablets, over Facebook and Twitter.
Technology also allows almost anyone to post pictures or stories or opinions online, start a website or share news via social media. When the post-hockey-game riot occurred in Vancouver last week, bystanders shot video with their cell phones and posted it on YouTube for the world to see.
That unfiltered flow of information is a good thing. But accountability reporting goes beyond point-and-shoot information or personal comments on a story.
It requires digging deep into documents and interviewing multiple sources. It analyzes the performance of people in power and measures them against a societal standard. It follows a professional ethic of fairness. It takes time and, therefore, money.
Because of that, it’s too expensive a proposition for most web start-ups. Accountability reporting, according to the FCC report, is still being done mainly by traditional media, and most of that by newspapers.
The problem is that the Great Recession caused hardships for traditional media. Advertisers who provided most of the revenue for newspapers and radio and television stations pulled back because of stresses on their businesses. Traditional media are in the process of rebuilding their business model, but lost thousands of newsroom staff members from 2006 to 2010, about 20 percent of them accountability reporters, the report estimated. Our newsroom has not been immune.
So what are we doing about all of this at the TNT?
First, we’re finding new sources of income to supplement revenue from print advertisers. About 20 percent of our revenue now comes from online ad sales. We’re also helping businesses improve their online marketing, distribute advertisements in the mail and publish coupons online. And our company is exploring pay subscription models for online. All of that will help pay for reporting.
Second, we’re keeping our watchdog focus. We can’t get to all the stories that need covering – we never could – but we are not abandoning accountability reporting.
Third, we need to harness technology to help us with that reporting. A few years ago, we deputized readers to identify potholes in Tacoma streets and post them online. We paired that with an accountability story about how much of the city’s budget was set aside to repair them. We’ll look for more ways to do that.
Last, we encourage you to be savvy consumers and good citizens. Understand that all “news” is not created equal. Seek out and support good accountability reporting. Inform yourself before you vote.
In this new, busier media marketplace, each of us will play a role. We consider accountability reporting one of ours.
WEATHER PAGE CHANGES
A number of readers have called to say they miss the national map we took off our daily weather page. We are working with our vendor to redesign the page and find room for the map and maybe a few more local temps. We’d like to hold the package to no more than half a page, so we’ll have to see what fits. More soon.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 email@example.com