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Journalism's dirty little secret

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Ray Ring’s excellent piece on the shortcomings of Western newspapers (HCN, 10/13/03: The Big Story Written Small) brought back a lot of memories from my own daily reporting days. His story, and the recent report from the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources, reveal a dirty little secret: Too many of our newspapers are skewering the communities they’re supposed to serve.

Unfortunately, that giant sucking sound coming from your "local" newspaper probably isn’t from reporters scooping up news. In most cases, it’s the sound of increasingly obscene profits leaving town, and hordes of seasoned reporters and front-line editors heading out the door in disgust.

And what do our communities get in return? A pitifully disengaged citizenry left to run a "model" democracy on coffee-shop rumors and splinters of boiled-out information, if that.

Here in Montana, for example, no news organizations regularly cover any of our state government agencies, and "investigative" reporting usually means simply trolling a tad below the surface. Reporters, with very few exceptions, are poorly compensated, and must cover way too many beats. Managers balk at trips out of town, and efforts to organize staff into unions are looked upon as treason.

There is a shameful and unethical lack of vigilance by the majority of today’s newspapers. That’s largely because the traditional role of being the public’s watchdog and protector is seen as too costly — and boring — by those who equate running papers to any other type of factory or retail center. Readers are also to blame, because few demand that newspapers provide them with what they actually need — complete and unvarnished information to help them make crucial decisions about their lives.

Thanks also for providing examples of reputable papers and publishers that still maintain some level of journalistic integrity. They are few and far between here in the West, even as we need them ever more.

Ron Selden
Helena, Montana

The writer is a former Missoulian and Great Falls Tribune reporter who now writes for a variety of publications.
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