The American newspaper died during my watch. Cause of death: “Cubicle-osis,” the practice of covering the news while sitting on your ass.
In 16 years of working for a small-town daily, I watched young reporters increasingly rely on telephones and computers to gather the news.
It wasn’t entirely their fault. In order to compete with electronic media — and later social media — newspapers were forced to become more efficient. That meant making phone calls or going online in lieu of walking or driving to city hall to see what was really going on.
Efficiency is fine if you’re cranking out widgets on an assembly line, not so much when you’re gathering news. A phone call is a poor substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face interview. Email and text message exchanges are even less effective.
For one thing, it’s harder for the interviewee to buffalo you when you’re looking him or her in the eye.
Secondly, I’ve spun off many a feature story by making the rounds in person. On more than one occasion, interesting articles were spawned by asides that came up during interviews or objects I observed on public officials’ desks or walls.
Cubicle journalism ties reporters to their desks — and to schedules, as mentioned in a previous post. Neither is conducive to good reporting. Spontaneity makes for better journalism. As a city government reporter, I often made the rounds of city hall unannounced. No appointments, no interviews. I just stuck my head inside the door and, if someone was there, I struck up a conversation.
That went beyond city hall. I developed a reputation for dropping by most anywhere — the fire station, cop shop, parks department maintenance shed, street department garage. There’s no better way to feel the pulse of the city than hanging out with the folks in the trenches.
Fortunately, local governments — particularly in small markets — are accessible to reporters. They should take advantage of that while they can.
It’s too late at the state level. Public officials there are beholden to their power base — the big money that got them there. They are obligated to stay on message, so reporters don’t get to talk to them (at least not in any meaningful way). Information is filtered through their PIOs. Supposedly that’s an acronym for Public Information Officers. In reality, it stands for Pissants In charge of Obfuscation.
But that’s another rant for another post.