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Florida’s Shrinking Newspaper Corps | Tom O'Hara

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Florida’s Shrinking Newspaper Corps | Tom O'Hara

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Florida’s Shrinking Newspaper Corps
Tuesday, October 09, 2012 — Tom O'Hara


FROM: A newspaper dinosaur

TO: Florida citizens

The traditional newspaper is dying. Large cities – New Orleans, Syracuse, Harrisburg – no longer have papers delivered to homes seven days a week.

There’s really nothing that can be done about it. Ink-on-paper newspapers don’t make enough money and it’s only going to get worse. Eventually, newspaper owners will figure out how to make a decent profit delivering information digitally or simply go out of business.

Most people don’t care. After all, you can get your news from your iPhone.

But the tweets and blog posts are not giving you enough of the substantial news you really need. All these dying newspapers are surviving by cutting costs. That means getting rid of journalists.
That means there “are fewer of us asking probing questions,” said Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee bureau chief.

Klas has been covering Florida politics since 1988. She pointed out that more than 100 members of the media – TV, radio, newspapers, websites – covered the 2000 session of the Legislature. In 2010, only 40 covered it and “I suspect that last year it was down to 30.”

Klas is an optimist by nature and she noted that journalists still wield considerable power in Tallahassee. Twitter and Facebook and iPads transmit information so quickly these days that a story or blog post published on a newspaper’s website can affect behavior in the capital with incredible speed, she said.

Also, even though there are fewer journalists covering state government – and far fewer covering local governments – good journalists still produce some powerful public-service journalism.
But there just are not enough boots on the ground. An American Society of News Editors survey released in April documented the thinning of the ranks. In 1990, there were 56,900 editors and reporters working at U.S. newspapers; this year there are only 40,600. And the numbers continue to fall.

Also, many reporters today are young, inexperienced and low-paid. They lack the institutional knowledge and vital sources that the departing veteran reporters had.

With fewer talented journalists on the beat, politicians, lobbyists and businessmen have learned they can “wait it out” when they find themselves in a mess, Klas said.

When there were more reporters who had the resources of profitable newspapers behind them, sleazy public officials and their cronies had to endure relentless scrutiny.

If you’re a junkie for international and national news, your addictions will be taken care of. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the TV networks will survive covering presidential campaigns, terrorism and meltdowns in the Middle East.

But if you worry about the judgment, intelligence and ethics of your local school board, you’re increasingly out of luck. Streaming the school board meetings live does not provide the same information that a smart and dogged newspaper reporter can. And there probably aren’t reporters at your school board meetings these days.

Kudos to Mary Ellen Klas and the others in Florida’s shrinking corps of savvy newspaper reporters. They’re doing their best to hold public officials accountable. But there are not enough of them these days and there will be fewer in the years ahead.

You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

A former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tom O'Hara is a national columnist for Florida Voices.

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