John Oliver’s hilarious and sadly brilliant take on the dying local news industry — and mass media’s clueless cannibalism of it — reminded me of a segment of a lecture I delivered last spring in my hometown of Grand Forks, ND. I’ve altered parts of it in the interest of making it more relevant to a wider audience.
State of the Media: Workhorses Dwindle While Copycats Multiply
How the tale of an endangered Little League program and a local strip club illustrates the state of the modern media
News seems to be everywhere — Facebook, Twitter, the ticker at the bottom of the TV at the airport. But most of it is rehash; original reporting is actually in shorter and shorter supply.
Here’s one way to look at it: While the ranks of workhorses are dwindling, the copycats are multiplying.
I define “workhorses” as reporters who actually use a phone to call sources, and occasionally even get into their car to go knock on doors and talk to people face to face.
“Copycats,” meanwhile, is my word for media workers who do the dirty work of “aggregating.” Aggregators essentially “borrow” the work of already published stories for the sake of driving traffic to their own sites.
For instance, if a reporter at my hometown paper, the Grand Forks Herald, were to write a story about how a bench-clearing brawl broke out between the University of North Dakota and University of Minnesota hockey teams, maybe a writer at the Huffington Post would find that story on the web, slap together a short blurb based on the Herald story and include a link to the Herald’s piece, in essence taking the story national. It’s not exactly plagiarism, but it’s certainly flirting with it.
Much of the news that bubbles to the national level first appeared in a local outlet.
Often, the writers at national outlets — such as the Huffington Post — are under extreme pressure to churn out multiple stories in a day, and spend much of their time rehashing. (Hence a new term in journalism — “churnalism”.)
These folks borrow heavily from the workhorses at local outlets.
They also lift the labors of the workhorses to the national stage — and as such are contributors to the phenomenon we all know as going viral.
As a reporter, going viral feels great — if a little overwhelming.
But the dust storm can make it easy to forget that most of these stories begin with a traditional beat reporter.
I once wrote a story for the Daily Breeze about a Little League team out of a poor community called Lennox that nearly had to shut down because the school district doubled the fees to use the ballfields.
But a local business stepped up and saved the day for the 12-year-old players. There was just one hitch: the local business was a strip club.
(Incidentally, this true story is weirdly parallel to the plotline of the Bad News Bears remake.)
Before I continue, let me back up. When I say Lennox is “poor,” I mean one of the most indigent areas of Los Angeles County. I once wrote a story about a charity that goes around giving free eyeglasses to students in Lennox who can’t afford them.
More alarmingly, Lennox is historically a hotbed of deadly gang violence. It’s main gang is called Lennox 13, which has ties to the Mexican Mafia. For many of these kids, Little League baseball is the only way to stay out of trouble and off the streets.
Anyway, the strip-club-to-the-rescue story attracted all kinds of national media, including NBC, Yahoo News, the Huffington Post, Deadspin, Fox Sports and the NY Daily News – to name a few.
Here is a story from the New York Daily News, which threw together some stock images and used three quotes, all ripped either from our story or another piece done by a local TV station — which, by the way, covered the story only after we broke it. What took us a few days to track down and report took that content creator at NY Daily News maybe 15 minutes.
Same goes for Yahoo News, whose story included no original quotes but generated more than 2,000 reader comments and lord knows how many clicks.
In the end, the Lennox Little League felt compelled to return the “dirty money” from the gentleman’s club. But the story ends well. First, an outpouring of donations saved the league. Second, the league’s all-star team went on to win the Southern California championship.
My point is not necessarily that it’s bad that the copycats picked up the story and took it national. After all, that helped generate more donations. The point is, without the Breeze, that story never would have seen the light of day. And were there to be no story, perhaps there’d be no Little League, making the pull of the street gangs stronger yet.
The question is: How many stories out there never materialize because the local reporters simply aren’t there? And how many of those stories would have improved people’s lives?
The number of newsroom professionals in the U.S. has plunged 40 percent in less than a decade. That amounts to 22,000 fewer newsroom bodies since 2006.
One of those 22,000 positions is the reporter – me – whose beat included Lennox: The Daily Breeze hasn’t filled that position since I left in August of 2014. Long after I left, people from Lennox would occasionally call to ask if I could pursue a story. I forwarded their messages to the Breeze, but the talented people who remain were buried in work. The stories went untold.