Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We may be witnessing the death of aggressive enterprise journalism that protects a free society


Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be newsies (with apologies to Willie Nelson).

Unlike the golden eras of the past, today's terribly changed news media push into a gory new frontier. We may be witnessing the death of aggressive enterprise journalism that protects a free society.

Corporate media layoffs, buyouts and reductions in force reflect a tough economic climate for news organizations.

The result is fewer experienced reporters asking probing questions of our leaders and institutions. Translation: dangerous potential exists for an unchecked era of chicanery and corruption.

In this capital city, where many of Florida's daily newspapers can take pride in having long-established bureaus, the cutting and gutting registers in a regular body count -- akin to a serial killing of the watchdog function our media perform.

As our news media lose their ability to cover the daily events and emerging trends of the state's three branches of government and other key institutions, the political forces seeking to influence them will win their narrow, special-interest agendas. That is a threat to our very democracy.

Before it's too late, here's one solution: Create a "super bureau" in which multiple news organizations share their dwindling resources to better cover the political/power scene. The competition factor -- a mixed bag in capital journalism -- should give way to a creative, coordinated and cooperative new ability to get the job done, together.

This idea isn't radical -- but it is practical. The use of "pool" reporters and photographers who share what they get with rival journalists is not uncommon in selective situations, such as presidential news conferences and campaign reporting. Now, it is time to standardize it -- rather than witness the atrophy of capital media's muscle.

Sharing costs and responsibilities would mean the few remaining reporters in the Florida Capital Press Corps wouldn't all cover the same news conferences or stories every day, which often has produced only multiple versions of the same canned news.

But deploying those reporters to cover different stories means all media -- and the public -- would better be covered where it matters most. And some new enterprise journalism might emerge.

There is modern precedent. Back in 1994, multiple Florida newspapers and TV stations collaborated in the "Voices of Florida" project to cover a spirited governor's race (Lawton Chiles versus Jeb Bush). Though aspects of this coverage were controversial (at least one newspaper opted out rather than be part of what it called a "cabal"), the coverage was aggressive and comprehensive.

After the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, news organizations cooperated again in a noble effort to analyze what went wrong. The outcome was a proud body of work for journalism.

The harsh fiscal realities in media today make the super capital bureau a near necessity. Staffed by reporters from various news organizations, it may be the only way to vigorously ask the tough questions and cover the news that impacts nearly 19 million people.

The journalists themselves would likely prefer working together in a strong and effective news bureau rather than feigning competition in a shrinking press corps. The bureau chief's responsibility could rotate among the journalists whose pursuit of the truth is the best hope for this idea actually working.

So, let this plan emerge now, before the Capital Press Corps is reduced to a press corpse. If it can work here, in Florida's capital, perhaps it might work in other markets and capitals. The captains of the media industry must care as much about the bottom line of journalism as their profits -- and the super bureau's funding and survival is one way to ensure both improve.

The number "30" was affixed to the end of a news story in newsrooms of old. Let's hope, for the sake of Florida, that there is more, not a "30," to the ongoing work of our Capital Press Corps.

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