Timely Miami Herald column by Beth Reinhard on the demise of the Fourth Estate.
In an eerily prescient plot line in Carl Hiaasen‘s 2002 novel Basket Case, an intrepid reporter whose stories have sent three politicians to jail leaves the newspaper for another job and isn’t replaced.
Another reporter is told to keep an eye on the local government, but he covers a city council that also meets Tuesday nights, forcing him to alternate his attendance between the two municipalities. The politicians time their misdeeds accordingly: Property taxes and garbage fees go up, a tire dump and a warehouse park are built in residential neighborhoods, and everybody gets a pay raise.
The weary reporter quits, so the newspaper dumps his job on somebody else — who also covers city council meetings on Tuesday nights.
”For the corrupt politicians in our circulation area, it was a dream come true,” writes Hiaasen, a Miami Herald columnist who says newspapers regularly inform his fiction. “The unsuspecting citizens of three communities . . . were being semi-regularly reamed and ripped off by their elected representatives, all because the newspaper could no longer afford to show up.”
Imagine this scenario playing out in city after city, and you have a pretty good idea of the political fallout of a newspaper industry on the wane. This is the best thing that ever happened to crooked pols since manila envelopes.
This week, The Miami Herald announced its third round of layoffs in a year. Just another day in an industry where a number of media companies are struggling to survive.
This column is not a self-serving sob story about people losing their jobs, because that is happening to everyone except foreclosure auctioneers and bankruptcy lawyers. The public’s interest is at stake here, as newspapers have long been the meanest and best government watchdogs around.
When the scrappy, Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News shut down on Feb. 27, it posted a poignant video on its website in which reporters and readers talk about the vital role of the Fourth Estate. Editor John Temple says readers frequently refer to the paper not as ”the Rocky,” but as ”my Rocky,” reflecting their feeling of communal ownership in the newsgathering enterprise.
This is personal.
In Florida, a robust and competitive network of daily newspapers has thrived in a sort of journalism hothouse, where strong public records laws and weak-kneed politicians laid fertile ground for muckraking. But every paper has been forced to reduce its coverage or give up entire communities in recent years. The Tallahassee press corps has shrunk dramatically, and in Washington the owners of the Tampa Tribune and the Palm Beach Post plan to shutter their bureaus.
Sure, the explosive growth of blogs and other online outlets is helping fill the void. Some of the best scoops of the 2008 campaign first appeared outside the mainstream press. Local gadflies, out-of-work reporters and other rabbler rousers are posting great stuff.
But the best journalism is frequently labor-intensive and expensive. Someone drawing a paycheck has to take the time to sit through the city council meeting, scour the annual budget or truth-squad a campaign ad.
The Herald and other papers are partnering with former competitors in an effort to fill the gaps. Big-mouthed readers have always helped us stay in the loop, and we need you more than ever to be our eyes and ears on the ground.
Somebody has got to get to that Tuesday night city council meeting.