Margaret Sullivan at the NYTimes wrote that the demise of the regional dailies has led to a dearth of investigative reporting in the United States. The problem with her analysis is that she only got the story partially right.
Independent news media throughout the United States are doing an amazing job of investigative reporting. Especially at the local level, there are rich resources going to investigative reporting. In fact, there is an entire organization, INN, that is dedicated to investigative work. The independents in the Media Consortium, the alt-weeklies--like the much-mourned Boston Phoenix--as well as community, ethnic and hyperlocal outlets all have broken stories as a result of their investigative work. We need to turn the "spotlight" on these outlets, who are the canaries in the coal mine of the news media.
At the same time, we need to be honest: independent, alternative, hyperlocal and community news can not fill the gap left behind by the regional dailies. The regional dailies had the kinds of resources few independents have. They also were able to translate local issues into issues of national prominence, and vice versa.
Spotlight is a good example. The Phoenix broke the story of bad priests. But the Globe was able to dedicate 4 people for 6 months to deepen the original investigation, and turn the story about a few bad apples into a national piece about malfeasance at the highest levels of the church. The Phoenix would have done that story if it had had the resources--the reporters had the "chops." The immediate problem for the Phoenix was a resource problem. Yet, I believe that the film is also correct that another barrier for the Phoenix was its limited reach. The Globe simply had a bigger reach nationally than the Phoenix. And that is what we are missing with the death of regional news: resources and reach.
There have been a few solutions suggested for this problem:
  1. Prop up the remaining dailies. This is a losing strategy. The public doesn't want them.
  2. Pour resources into a few national independents like Mother Jones, ProPublica, etc. that can take the place of the dailies. I'm all in favor of this, but I don't think these outlets can replace the regionals precisely because they are not local. What's missing is the local-national connection.
  3. Create a network linking local independents to nationals. Local outlets are there getting the stories. We do have national outlets like Mother Jones, ProPublica etc with the resources to fully explore these stories. What we don't have is a way to link the locals to the nationals in a relationship of partnership and trust. That's what I want to build.
Imagine if the Phoenix and Globe had worked together on their story, with the reporter from the Phoenix on the Globe team, and simultaneous publication. I'm guessing the story would have been even better than it was! The technology now exists to link together local and national outlets in an editorial and marketing network. I envision a network in which local outlets that realize they are on top of a big story will be able to reach out to national partners to provide them with the resources and reach to tell the story. Such a network would also have an advantage the nationals and regionals never had before--the nationals could crowdsource personal narratives from locals as they work on big national stories, providing such stories with deeper resonance from multiple communities. The key to building such a network is not technical. The key is trust. Locals must be able to trust nationals not to steal their stories--and also to get the resonances right, especially around racial and ethnic representations. Nationals must believe that locals are valuable partners. The Media Consortium has begun this work by building strong relationships between our member organizations, which include both national and local members. We have begun reaching out to sister organizations--including AAN, ACM, NAM, CCEM, NFCB, INN, LION and others to begin building those relationships across the independent sector. The dailies were not built in a year. Nor will our network be. However, I envision that in 5-10 years we will have a fully functioning local-national network of independent and community news that will surpass the power of the old dailies in its ability to tell the stories that matter. --Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, Executive Director, The Media Consortium
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