As Newspapers Scale Back, What Happens To Watchdog Journalism?


John Stevenson, publisher of the Randolph Leader, a weekly newspaper published in Roanoke, AL. Photo by Les Lovoy.

In the last decade, hundreds of newspapers closed or started publishing less frequently. Locally, The Birmingham News cut back to publishing three days a week in 2012. As newspapers disappear, who is left to take a hard look at big business, politicians and political candidates? For WBHM, Les Lovoy continues his look at today's media landscape and considers the role of the watchdog journalist.


It's a typical Birmingham City Council meeting. Items are discussed. Budgets approved or voted down. Decisions that will affect thousands of Birmingham area residents. These are the very meetings newspapers long prided themselves on covering. Historically, they have been a community's watchdog. Keeping an eye on businessmen and politicians to report on whether they are doing right or wrong.

Studies have shown that as newspapers cut their staff of investigative reporters, some individuals in powerful positions, whether they be corporate CEOs or politicians, are taking full advantage of fewer watchdogs on their trail, skirting ethic laws and making shady deals.

"One thing I think we can say in confidence, people in power who are not monitored, are more likely to misbehave," says Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute. "Misconduct is going to be encouraged by the lack of a reporter, someone who is able to connect the dots, who goes to these meetings and has the ability because of their standing, working for a news publication to ask questions of people in power."

Nick Patterson is a seasoned Birmingham journalist and the editor of Weld, a local weekly newspaper. He says with no daily newspaper, he's concerned local media may not be covering local politics thoroughly.

"Well, I think the Birmingham Metro is not as well informed as it once was," he says. "Part of it is the lack of coverage of goes on in the smaller municipalities around here. I think there's probably less coverage going on in the bigger municipalities, as well, as there once was. Whenever you have a lack of people to send to stories that does not work in the public's favor."

It's not just in Birmingham; national trends show a decline in the field. The American Journalism Review recently reported the number of newspaper reporters in state capitals has declined by 32% in just the last six years. There were fewer full-time newspaper reporters in 44 state capitals.

Some organizations are doing something about this disparity. One is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. According to their president, Jason Stverak, the Franklin Center is teaching citizens how to be watchdog journalists with some bite.

"We teach them how to do the Freedom of Information Act. How to look at a budget. How to practice journalism without a license, sort of speak," he explains. "And to get that information out there, whether on their local blog, write a letter to the editor, or show up at the coffee shop the next morning and say, Hey did you see what Sally or Sam did at the school Board meeting last night."

In cities large and small, politicians can tiptoe past the media spotlight. John Stevenson is the publisher of the Randolph Leader, a weekly newspaper published out of Roanoke, Alabama, a small community about an hour and a half southeast of Birmingham. He and his staff used to create the week's edition on Tuesdays. Then the local school board decided to start meeting on Tuesdays. It made it harder for their reporters to attend.

"And we might miss a few school board meetings, he says. "And we have seen things go on in the past when we were not there that were not right and had we been there to report it, so once that happened for a little while, we found a way to make sure we were covering those meetings, and things straightened up."

No matter how much a newspaper - traditional or digital - may claim to be focused on informing the public, they need to be aware of one thing, according to Bernie Ankney, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Samford University.

"As a reader, it's hard for me to take the watchdog role of journalism real seriously when I see newspapers cut copy editors so much, and I read their articles and I see typo after typo and after typo after typo, he notes. "So, when there is a serious investigative journalism piece, why should I believe that if they can't catch typos and misspellings in headlines and in articles?"

The concept of keeping a watchful eye on big business and government is one thing that separates professional journalists from bloggers, critics and the kid down the street with a smart phone. True investigative reporting requires the resources and tenacity to wade through piles of data and get through to hard-to-reach individuals. But a lot rests on readers too. Readers must be more interested in being informed than simply entertained.