Muckraking For the Common Good

The mainstream media needs your help. For only 35 cents per day, you can…

Well, not really. Though some ink-stained wretches may take you up on it as community-based news outlets experience yet another tumultuous period of corporate consolidations and desperate staff buyouts to stem cash flow problems.

As was reported here nearly a month ago, the Rocky Mountain News announced a voluntary program directed at reporters and support staff aged 55 and older and with at least 10 years of service to the paper. The aim is to entice 20 long-time Rocky staff, presumably some of the highest paid based on longevity, to find greener pastures. While I don’t presume to know the details of the precarious financial situation of the Rocky or other newspapers that are currently struggling – rumors are circulating that the Denver Post and Boulder Camera are considering similar staff reduction options – I can’t help but wonder if an even more revolutionary approach may be needed.

Namely, making the content more relevant to readers through old school investigative reporting. Rather than reflexively cutting expenses, what if the paper was to re-invest in unique content to drive subscription and advertising revenues upward?

The incredible growth of alternative news sources, such as independent weeklies, online media, and citizen journalism sites, like My Hub, points to a craving for both local information and a way to interact with it.

True, many traditional newspapers have added blogs and reader forums to their Web sites to encourage dialogue. But when the daily news still relies heavily on national wire reports and superficial local coverage of events with little context all the technological gizmos in the world won’t bring readers back to the fold. Journalism-by-stenography is the literary equivalent of paint-by-number. The Mona Lisa will stand the test of time. Elvis on black velvet? Not so much. Not even if I can talk about it ad nauseum on an online forum.

Another problem is exemplified by this particularly biting comment made by Financial Times columnist Jurek Martin at CU Boulder’s annual Conference on World Affairs last week, as reported by Colorado Confidential’s Kerri Rebresh.

During a panel discussion on “Imagine a World Without Newspapers,” Martin sarcastically remarked that he attended a rally on campus earlier in the day to support embattled professor Ward Churchill. “Fifteen sophomores and a bullhorn that didn’t work” doesn’t justify wall-to-wall coverage by multiple outlets with the requisite ActionNews satellite trucks in the background.

Now, mulitply that pack mentality journalism one thousand-fold with the inescapable 24-hour coverage of the senseless tragedy this week at Virginia Tech. I’m anguished for the victims and their families but the bordering on ghoulish behavior of some news outlets and pundits is nothing less than revolting.

Fortunately, there is one time-tested potential solution to recapture the promise of print media whose origins come from the very founding of our nation. The very first American newspaper was published in 1690 “to cure the spirit of Lying much among us”.  And if there was ever proof of its impact, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick was shut down by the British Colonial government after just one issue.

Now more than ever, we need to encourage the honorable pursuit of journalistic muckraking at the community level where these types of stories can have tremendous impact in serving the public’s right to know. If not by the local news, then who?

Last fall, I broke a story about Rep. Bill Berens, then a Colorado representative and member of the House transportation and energy committee who accepted $20,000 from an oil and gas lobbyist in what appeared to be a violation of a state anti-corruption law that Berens had himself voted in favor of. Ultimately, he lost his re-election bid in November because the story was picked up by other publications that added further perspective to the politician’s seemingly hypocritical behavior.

Which brings me back to my concerns about the staff purge at the Rocky Mountain News. When a news organization loses its institutional memory by putting seasoned reporters, creative staff, and editors out to pasture, the common good suffers. No disrepect intended to young journalists but the grasp of history, reams of sources, and maturity of context will be sorely missed by the public when the newsroom is emptied.

Samuel McClure, one of the original muckrakers, said a century ago that when we ignore special interests that defy the law, “We have to pay in the end, every one of us. And in the end, the sum total of the debt will be our liberty.”

Who knew one of the most powerful defenses of democracy could come from the old geezers at the Home Town Gazette?

This editorial, in part, originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle.

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