There is no question that many newspapers throughout the nation are struggling. Many have had to cut the size of their staffs. As a result, coverage of governmental news is declining.
I can remember when the Grand Haven Tribune, Grand Rapids Press, Holland Sentinel and Muskegon Chronicle would each send a reporter to the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meetings. This meant, of course, that there were numerous stories printed about Ottawa County — ranging from budgets to taxation to hirings and firings. There wasn’t too much that was missed.
As newspaper staffing adjustments have been made through the years, there has been a decline in local government reporting.
Area newspapers, including the Grand Haven Tribune, have had to reduce their coverage of governmental news because of changes in staffing. Our area newspapers have also had to reduce their coverage of school board, city council and township meetings.
This isn’t an issue that is only found in Ottawa County. It is occurring nationwide.
Larger daily newspapers have reduced their coverage of news in Washington, D.C., as well as in state capitols. There is also less international news being reported. Even The Associated Press — the news service that many newspapers have counted on for national and statewide governmental reporting — has reduced its coverage because of the need to reduce staffing.
It is easy to point fingers at newspapers and blame them for their dwindling watchdog roles, but it really isn’t their fault. Dwindling advertising revenues and circulation losses are to blame. Newspapers have had no choice but to pare their costs — and reducing staff has been one of the victims.
I had several people tell me that local governments will have no fear of making controversial decisions if there are no reporters watching over them, as in years past. I can understand their concerns. Readers have depended on newspapers in the past to watch over governments.
The good news is that newspapers can still be watchdogs. The methods are just going to be different.
The Grand Haven Tribune recently announced a restructuring of the newspaper to be more in tune with changes in the digital world. The newspaper is still going to be published six days a week, but readers will see more emphasis placed on digital reporting, including using smartphones to promote stories.
The Tribune will have more tools available to be a watchdog.
A major way of improving coverage of local governmental news is more interaction with readers. Some newspapers are already offering programs to teach readers how to file Freedom of Information reports and how to access open governmental records, including budget information. Newspapers can also encourage readers to submit news tips through social media. Many newspaper editors now monitor social sites such as Facebook and Twitter for possible news stories.
There are also options for being a watchdog in Lansing. The Capital News Service in Lansing utilizes Michigan State University journalism students to gather news. Small daily newspapers could also band together to hire a reporter to cover state news.
Yes, newspapers are changing the way they present news. You’re seeing more emphasis placed on stories about local people. Studies have shown that this is what readers want.
But watchdog journalism doesn’t have to die. It’s just going to have to take a little ingenuity to keep it alive.