An expansion here on Monday’s post noting that I’ve given up for the time being on the Montana headline listing I’d been putting together weekly since February. After putting a fairly focused effort into sorting a state’s worth of news media content into its most noteworthy chunks for a third of a year, I’m hoping I can squeeze at least another a couple more posts worth of readable analysis out of the experience.
(The following is also informed, of course, by my day job covering cops and courts for the Great Falls Tribune — note that I’m not, however, writing as a representative of the paper by any means.)
What I did, briefly, if you’re new:
I read most everything (or skimmed headlines, at least) put out by Montana’s major newspapers, as well as the smaller publications and blogs I could hook up to my RSS reader.
With the aid of a bit of jerry-rigged coding, I took the stories I thought were most important each week and organized them into a list by convenient topic. Nothing earth-shattering — but just enough editorial process to force me to think a bit about the coverage, the issue’s importance, and the quality of the reporting.
What I learned:
Most reporting in Montana is local — reporters working in their community covering education, criminal justice, local government, sports etc. news of primarily local interest. I’m pretty sure you could actually fit all of Montana’s state-level reporters together in a smallish bar (something that I’d guess has actually happened) — Mike Dennison and Chuck Johnson of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau (which produces content for the Missoulian, Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record and a couple others), the 2-3 reporters at the Helena Associated Press bureau, my Great Falls Tribune colleague John S. Adams and a few more journalists based outside of Helena whose regularly write about issues (like public universities) with significance to a statewide audience.
What that means, it seems to me, is that there’s a very real bandwidth limitation on coverage that matters to Montana at a state level. Much of those reporters’ time ends up being focused on the obligatory, reactive coverage — interpreting press releases for major announcements, reporting election results, duplicating stories broken by other outlets.
We have much less in the way of proactive reporting — stories that follow up on government failures to see whether things have improved after scandals have passed, dogged investigations into possible corruption, deep explanations that help citizens understand more than the talking points with debates over issues like health care, taxation and education. The sort of journalism that readers won’t necessarily miss consciously on a daily basis, but that provides one of democracy’s essential feedback mechanisms over time.
(Montana’s television stations seem to do very little reporting that fits my definition of “proactive” here, hence my neglect of their role in all this — but the logic behind that dismissal is probably fodder for a separate post.)
Two qualifications: That’s a broad generalization that doesn’t give credit in some places it’s due, and also a state of affairs that’s recognized (and widely lamented) inside the newspaper industry, which has taken an economic beating as Google et al. have appropriated a significant chunk of its advertising revenue in recent years.
One other note, too — proactive journalism is difficult, time-intensive work that typically requires years of experience in prying information out of bureaucracy to truly do well. You can take young, relatively inexperienced reporters (like yours truly) and pay them $25K a year to cover car crashes, court hearings and feel-good stories with decent results, but the odds that they’ll be able to go toe-to-toe with complex power structures before they’ve acquired some seasoning are slim at best (one reason the Billings Gazette’s wave of recent departures is so disheartening).
On the presentation side of things, most of Montana’s journalists are still writing for newspapers, even if their stories also happen to be published online. At a fundamental level, print and online publishing are different mediums in terms of optimal writing style and how you pair articles with supplemental content like links, images and video. It doesn’t necessarily seem like Montana’s reporters — and the editorial structures behind them, have figured out how to deal with that.
Most reporters at most Montana newspapers appear to still be thinking about their work with the print product in mind first and foremost, which means our digitally published reporting ends up being a significantly lower-quality product than what appears in dead-tree editions (the Bozeman Chronicle and Great Falls
Tribune are partial exceptions, I think, having experimented with live event coverage and embedded video to an extent). And that’s without taking the poorly produced, intrusive ads that clutter many newspaper websites into account.
All that is a non-trivial concern for papers’ long-term outlooks, given that the younger audiences whose loyalty needs to be secured in the coming decades if newspapers are going to remain viable businesses. Us Millenials will inevitably compare local news sites to the design quality expectations set by national sites, as well as to the Apple devices many of us are reading digital content on, and we’ll flock to the sources that deliver.
What it means for those of us in the news business
I hate to pile on the bandwagon of voices lamenting the decline of the state’s newspaper, but there are real reasons to worry about the health of Montana’s media as the industry struggles to adapt to a digital world — and, by extension, the health of our democracy’s independent immune system.
There are reasons to be hopeful, too — and I’m looking forward to seeing things progress in the coming years.
Montana has no small number of talented reporters, editors and publishers, and our major newspapers are making progress (e.g. the Tribune’s new website introduced this last month).
At least one veteran Montana reporter has struck out on his own with a digital-only publication, as well (Ed Kemmick, founded the Last Best News in January after leaving the Gazette), and the state has several younger publications that have been somewhat more nimble in adjusting to online publishing (the Missoula Independent and Flathead Beacon, for instance).
One place, I’d add, where there’s hardly any made-in-Montana coverage is the health of the Montana newspaper industry (apart from periodic hand-wringing over bonuses paid to Lee Newspaper executives), and the various ways it’s struggling to respond to the sorts of concerns I’ve outlined here.
And that’s enough for now — I was also hoping to sketch out some ideas for state-level news aggregation, but will save it for a future post.
One last note: If you think any or all of the thoughts here are worth spreading, please take a moment to give this post some love on your social media platform of choice. With a reputation-less independent blog like this, digitally enhanced word-of-mouth is essentially the only way people who might be interested in reading find their way here.
Also — please do question and comment, too. If one of my half-baked ideas doesn’t make sense (or does, and sparks a lightbulb) I’d like to hear about it — and will talk back.