Recession killed the watchdog

Eric Olson, SBJ EditorNewspapers are falling into a coma in the political domes where so many decisions are made affecting business conducted in our states. Recent events have made this clear to me, and someone needs to remind papers about the business conducted in our state capitols.

Last week, a state department spokesman told me he had been released from the major Missouri metro paper where he was a veteran statehouse correspondent.

The reason?

“Nobody (in the city where the paper is published) cares to read about state government, anymore,” the newspaper superiors told the 10-year Jefferson City correspondent. “Then they cut me a check, and sent me on my way.”

Reading between the lines, budget cuts from the top identified a government reporter – who, for instance, tracked a multibillion-dollar state budget, followed the Medicaid changes and chronicled lobbyists’ influence on public policy – was something the paper could live without right now.

It’s not an uncommon scenario for American companies tumbling in this economy – as evidenced by the Labor Department’s recent announcement of 7.6 percent unemployment during a month in which the term “Bloody Monday” arose.

Newspapers are simply among the employment casualties, extracting thousands from daily newsrooms across the country – from the small-town papers to the major dailies. Just last week, a weekly business product inserted into the Aspen (Colo.) Daily News bit the dust after advertising dried up.

While any job cut is a tough decision to make and an even tougher thing to enact, state capitol reporters serve a critical role. I am not debating the significance of cuts by newspapers versus manufacturers or any other industries. I’m saying these reporter cuts remove powerful information from the fingertips of capitalistic minds who make the USA what it is today.

Removing these statehouse correspondents peels away a layer of watchdogs crucial to our society. Just imagine if our nations’ papers were not able to send reporters to congressional hearings and presidential briefings about the historic bailout plans.

Reading this weekend’s Wall Street Journal sent my feelings sinking even further. The problem may be deeper than a recession.

In an opinion piece by Collin Levy, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley points out a structural problem in media circles. He even ties the problem to the infamous Rod Blagojevich scandal, which led to the first impeachment of an Illinois governor.

Veteran politician Daley tells Levy that because statehouses are often miles away from the major media markets, such government news often goes overlooked or, worse, uncovered.

But it exists.

“Just recently you had the Speaker of the House of Massachusetts, Florida, the Senate president in New York,” he says, citing some ethical incidents. “Human frailty happens and will continue to happen.

“In Washington, you have Tom DeLay,” Daley goes on. “And Abramoff, it’s like everyone forgot him. Where is he?”

Somewhere, a government reporter knows.

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