Just the Facts

One of the first magazines I ever subscribed to was Harpers. Each month, when the magazine showed up in my mailbox, I eagerly flipped to the “Harper’s Index,” where the editors listed arcane, odd and ordinary facts to surprise, unsettle or alarm the reader.

This week, the magazine Mother Jones published a similar index on the state of journalism. In “Black and White and Dead All Over,” Senior Editor Dave Gilson provides a long list of troubling journalism statistics. Here is a quick sampling:

  • In 2006, 62 percent of all reporters worked for newspapers.
  • Nearly one in five newspaper journalists has lost his or her job since 2001.
  • In the first five months of 2009, 100 newspapers shut down and more than 9,000 newspaper jobs were lost.
  • Since 1985, the number of newspapers with Washington bureaus has dropped by more than 50 percent..
  • 72 percent fewer newspapers and wire services cover Congress today than in the mid-1980s.
  • One-third fewer newspaper reporters cover state capitols today than in 2003.
  • An economist found that after the Cincinnati Post closed in 2007, fewer people in the area voted, fewer candidates ran for office, and incumbents were more likely to be reelected.
  • Before the 2006 elections, 30-minute local TV newscasts spent less than two minutes on election coverage. They spent seven minutes on sports and weather.
  • Between 2007 and 2008, coverage of the Iraq war dropped by 95 percent on cable news, 91 percent on network news, and 65 percent in newspapers.

The stats do a good job of illustrating the vital civic role journalists play, and they highlight the need to find new ways of supporting and fostering vibrant reporting in our communities, statehouses and internationally.

However, Gilson’s index perpetuates the notion that the struggles facing journalism are primarily a function of economics. This hides the important role public policy has played in creating the media system we now have. How many jobs have been lost to media consolidation ushered in by relaxed ownership regulations? How many diverse voices were pushed off the air after Congress eliminated the Minority Tax Certificate program? How many more local journalists could be put to work if Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act? I’d like to see this index.

We need to put these facts in context and connect the dots so we can get to the root of the journalism crisis and begin fighting for structural solutions.

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