What We’ve Lost

“Why doesn’t the press cover __________?” is a question I’m often asked. There are a few answers, depending on context. Sometimes the press has covered it, but not as extensively or impactfully as you’d like. Sometimes there’s no coverage because it’s not that much of a story. But the most accurate answer is, “WHAT press?”

We all know the media business has shrunk, but I don’t think we realize exactly how far the shrinkage has gone or how deeply it affects the quality and quantity of news.

Go back, say, ten years. Not that long ago. The Associated Press had three reporters. The Burlington Free Press had at least two reporters at the Statehouse and covering state politics. The Times Argus and Rutland Herald had a three-person Statehouse bureau. Seven Days had three, and they’d deploy more if the need arose. VPR had two. WCAX and WPTZ each had a deeply experienced Statehouse/politics reporter full-time, and WVNY/WFFF usually had a young reporter on the beat most of the time.

On the other hand, VTDigger was barely more than a glimmer in Anne Galloway’s eye.

Well, actually, it was Galloway by herself, working her ass off. No time for glimmering.

Now, Digger has three Statehouse reporters plus issue specialists who frequent the Statehouse when their beats are involved. So that’s an improvement over the good old days. But look at the rest of the landscape.

The AP has two reporters, and they barely spend any time at the Statehouse. The Free Press has thrown in the towel on covering state news, focusing entirely on its home city. The T-A/Herald Statehouse bureau is no more. Seven Days has two reporters, and its “Fair Game” column has been shuttered for almost a full year. VPR has one full-timer plus part of Bob Kinzel. The three TV stations will send a reporter when they think there’s news, but trolling the Statehouse isn’t really a thing for them. Digger, for all the additions it’s made to its press corps, no longer has any political columnists on the payroll.

That’s a catastrophic decline in coverage of state government and politics.

And the remainder of the press corps is stretched to the limit. Between the fast pace of the Internet and declining newsroom numbers, reporters are expected to crank out content at a furious pace. There’s little time for poking around, reviewing documents, or developing sources when your deadline is always imminent.

Beyond that, there’s the lemming phenomenon. If there’s an A story, a B story and a C, the A gets a crowd of reporters while the B’s and C’s often go begging. News outlets are pretty much obligated to cover the A story. This is a big problem for every outlet except Digger, which can spread the coverage more broadly.

During my time wandering the halls, I often came upon ideas that could have produced great stories but the payoff (a) was uncertain and (b) would have required a hell of a lot of work. More often than not, those stories were dropped due to the pressures of a neverending news cycle.

And I worked for two relatively well-resourced organizations.

One specific note about VPR. The “in-depth” four- to eight-minute story used to be their bread and butter. Now, VPR reporters spend more of their time producing quick-hit newscast stories instead of long-form pieces. That’s become a necessity because the AP, which used to provide a decent backbone of broadcast news content, is no longer up to the job. VPR has to fill the gaps.

VPR has also gone into podcasts and digital media in a big way. It’s understandable; that’s where the audience is going. Hell, I’m old and I barely listen to the radio any more. It’s podcasts and streaming services. But VPR’s new focus means fewer resources for good old-fashioned reporting.

Finally, the media echo chamber is a lot smaller. That’s crucial because a single report rarely blows the doors off a big story, just as a single pebble produces nothing more than a few ripples. There has to be follow-up, preferably by multiple outlets that can bring the story to different audiences and explore other aspects of the story. A small and overburdened press corps means it’s much less likely that a story will catch on and reverberate widely. It will effectively disappear.

We’re damned lucky in Vermont to have VTDigger. Without them, our political media would be an absolute joke. Whatever her faults, Anne Galloway deserves our gratitude for willing this priceless resource into being instead of going into PR/Comms work after her newspaper career ended, which would have been much easier and far more lucrative.

But even a robust VTDigger can only do so much.

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