Here Come the Bloggers
Time to Say Good-Bye
To the Daily Newspaper?
Not If We Want Hard News
By Edward Shanahan
Despite the hand wringing amid fears that the Internet and the explosion of on-line blogs spells the certain end of newspapers, don’t believe it.
Where will the bloggers get the material for their opinions and commentary if they don’t have the original reporting of the newspaper reporters to turn to. Newspaper stories based on the legwork and energy of individual reporters largely remains the principal source of the news that bloggers are circulating, sometimes offering it up as their own work.
Those of us with experience in both newspapers and on-line journalism understand that well.
And that was the clear message I took away from a fascinating Frontline program titled “What’s Happening to the News,” part of a multi-part series on public television.
Without newspapers and the fodder they provide for citizen understanding or outrage, depending on your point of view, there is little original, primary source reporting available on so-called Internet news sites.
Maybe that will change in time as on-line news operations hire actual reporters and editors in significant numbers, but for now the newspaper and its reporters, especially at the local level, remain the principal conduit of news and information and, if done right, will continue to provide that essential service.
Let me a cite a few newspaper stories that probably caused public consternation, not to mention prompting bloggers, including me, to climb, megaphone in hand, atop the journalistic soapbox.
First there was the story in the Boston Globe calling attention to the nearly one in 10 Massachusetts State Police officers who made more than the governor last year, with 225 officers topping the $140,535 annual salary of the state's chief executive. And a rich source of this income was payment for simply being present at road work sites. Some 60 State Police officers earned more than $40,000 working such details, according to the Globe.
Four of the 2,338 state troopers were paid more than $200,000, and 123 others were paid more than $150,000, the Globe’s Suzanne Smalley reported.
Politics rather than safety seem to be behind such police assignments, given that Massachusetts is the only one of 50 states to have the requirement. And motorists will tell you that those on details rarely do much more than spend their time talking to the workmen.
What could be more wasteful than having highly-trained, well-paid professional law enforcement officers assigned to roadwork duty, which often involves merely sitting in an air-conditioned or heated cruiser, depending on the time of year, while outside crews toil on the Big Dig or excavate sections of the Mass Pike in sizzling heat or bitter cold.
This make-work scam takes place all over the Commonwealth, including at every hole in local streets dug by every utility company. One study estimated the costs of local police details in 2003 at $93.3 million, as much as $66.5 million more than lower-paid civilian flagmen would have been paid if that were allowed.
Second, the Springfield Republican, not a particularly aggressive news organization, reported on the size of the annual earnings of former state Rep. William Nagle of Northampton, who some years ago traded in his position of House Majority Leader for a post as clerk magistrate in the district court system, first in Ware and later moving to the closer-to-home Hadley court, which almost seemed to have been built for him.
. Nagle earns $110.000 a year in the clerk-magistrate’s job, which can’t involve much heavy lifting because I often see him jogging during the daylight hours on Route 9 in the vicinity of his Florence home on South Main Street. But he also has a related court job which entails handling after-hours bail hearings at various police stations for which he earns generous fees totaling more than $40,000 a year. According to the Republican’s Jack Flynn, Nagle has picked up more than $175,000 in bail fees since 2002, more than any other bail clerk in the four western counties.
Nice work if you can get it, and it turns out that serving in the Legislature is a huge help in landing such a juicy plum. Former Rep. Nancy Flavin of Easthampton also wound up with clerk-magistrate duties as Nagle’s assistant, as well as climbing aboard the gravy train, “earning” a total of $120,000, according to Flynn, including $35,000 in bail hearing fees.
A third recent newspaper story that caught my eye was one in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Based on an analysis by the local chapter of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the story concerned the hefty increase in the number of administrative jobs added at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in recent years relative to the number of new faculty slots.
My experience has been that, given the size of the UMass budget, the number of employees, as well as legislative mischief making, what goes on at the Amherst campus is in constant need of reporters’ attention. But, because it is such a sprawling and labyrinthine bureaucracy nailing down facts and figures is time consuming and complicated work.
In this case, we learned from reporter Kristin Palpini, that in its simplest terms, between 2003-2004 and 2006-2007, the number of administrators increased by 21 percent and the total of administrators’ salaries increased by 51 percent size. This compared to a tenure-track faculty increase of five percent and a salary increase of 13 percent for that category of faculty.
The UMass story came in the wake of an earlier Gazette article outlining in detail the salaries and fringe benefits for each and every public school superintendent in the area, again a reporting task that takes time and care.
How many bloggers are going to devote the time necessary to do this kind of reporting in the field? It is much easier to let the newspapers do the work, and then pass along, with commentary, those facts.
We do some of that on downstreet.net, but we also have done original reporting in the case of problems at the Northampton Housing Authority, developments at the former Northampton State Hospital, zoning and planning issues related to Beaver Book Estates, the Garden House at Look Park, the financial mess at the United Way, programming and spending controversies at public radio station WFCR and the politics surrounding the building of new courthouses in Western Massachusetts.
A final newspaper story, while not local, but instructive in terms of the importance of hard-nosed, dedicated, public service reporting were the recent articles appearing the Washington Post about the squalid living conditions and neglect suffered over several years by badly injured veterans housed at the renowned Walter Reed Hospital complex in Washington.
This particular story focused on the horrendous conditions that amputees and those with war-induced traumas such as mental health issues had to put up with while awaiting placement out of the hospital. We now learn, the hospital administration had been told about these conditions as much as three years ago.
But nothing was done because there was no public exposure of this shameful situation until two newspaper reporters, Dana Priest and Anne Hull, spent four months methodically talking to patients, examining conditions, and asking tough questions of hospital staff.
Now, the story is carried on every news channel, cable or Internet, because two reporters toiled below the radar to document what the powers-that-be neither admitted existed nor wanted the public to know about. And, surprise, surprise, Pentagon officials on March 1 cashiered the commander of the Walter Reed Medical Center because the Army had lost confidence in his leadership.
So, let’s not write off the newspapers yet, because if and when they are gone, having yielded to the technical wizardry of on-line communication, we might find there are very few people left who will engage in the often dreary, tedious, but essential task of unearthing news that some people would prefer remain buried or shielded from view.
Who will tell the people then, the bloggers? Don’t count on it. (posted 3/2/07)
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.