The Future of Community Journalism

15 09 2010

After I finished my formal education, I spent 10 years in state and local government.  After leaving government, I went to work in the private sector.  At that point, friends often asked if I missed being in government.  One of my half-facetious replies was “It’s nice not to wake up every day and dread reading the morning newspapers.”

Indeed, when I worked for the Governor of Colorado and the Mayor of Denver, there were often days when I awoke to read a newspaper headline about some bureaucratic scandal or impropriety.  At the time, there were more than 50,000 state employees and more than 20,000 city employees.  It was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, some employee would be caught loitering on the job, using government resources for personal purposes, or even embezzling money.

In those days, Denver was in the midst of a newspaper war between two equally-strong dailies: the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.  As a result, entrepreneurial reporters had a huge incentive to get a scoop and to publish an exclusive story before the competition knew about it.  This led to occasional journalistic errors, where a story would be printed in haste – before the facts were verified or before both sides could be presented fairly.  But this environment also led to aggressive investigative reporting that was insightful, educational, and revealing.

Times have changed.  Last year, the Rocky Mountain News ceased operations after 150 years.  The Denver Post, the “winner” of the Denver newspaper war, is struggling to remain afloat financially.  Faced with competition from the internet and countless other news sources that did not exist just a few years ago, the Post has had to cut staff and other costs.  The paper today is much smaller than it used to be, with fewer reporters covering state and local news.

At one level, the end of the newspaper war is a relief.  The number of sensational, inflammatory, attention-getting headlines and stories has declined.  But, at a deeper level, the end of the newspaper war and the loss of the Rocky Mountain News have been tragic for our community.

A study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation found that there is an inverse relation between the number of investigative reporters in the community and the amount of local government corruption.  In other words, investigative reporters uncover corruption and that leads to less corruption.  I suppose that if people in local government know they are more likely to get caught and be publicly exposed if they do something bad, they’re less likely to do something bad.

Printed newspapers are dinosaurs; they are becoming extinct.  Many members of my generation will never lose the desire to read a hard copy morning paper, to have ink-stained fingertips accompanying breakfast.  But such a desire is almost nonexistent among younger generations.  Before long, newspapers will be a relic of the past.

What will replace traditional newspapers?  Some people argue that the internet has already replaced newspapers, that wiki sites and open-source information collecting are a better and more customized way to get news than newspapers ever were or could be.  Other people argue that we are losing a crucial piece of our civic infrastructure.  This second group urges some combination of private, public, and nonprofit sources to finance local journalism in new and creative ways.  An example is ProPublica, the nonprofit, independent news source that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting this year, or I-News, the investigative news network founded here in Denver by a former Rocky Mountain News reporter. 

What do you think?  Should The Denver Foundation get involved in supporting local journalism?  If so, how?

 — David Miller, President and CEO, The Denver Foundation