Shrinking coverage means less real news

Let’s face it: TV and radio stations rely on the local newspaper for most of their news. So what happens to those “rip and read” broadcasters as print staffs shrivel amid the draconian layoffs strafing the newspaper industry?

Here’s what: Shrinking print coverage threatens to trigger a “domino effect” as news operations downsize, feeding the strange Internet age conundrum where there’s more information — courtesy of blogs and the Web — but less real news, especially as it pertains to backyard issues.

Print journalists have long chafed at broadcast media pilfering their stories, often without bothering to credit the source. The seldom-mentioned practice went very public and nasty in 1999, when the Toledo Blade sued WSPD-AM in Ohio for “pirating” and “misappropriation” of stories. Then again, the Clear Channel station was hardly subtle, featuring a morning host whose motto was “I read the Blade so you don’t have to.”

The thinness in assembling TV and radio news — and the manner in which they use newspapers as de facto tip sheets and newsgathering surrogates — has long been one of broadcasting’s dirty little secrets.

Talkradio stations frequently employ a news person, which is really just a lonely gnome culling half-hour updates from the paper and wire. Newsradio generally exhibits the same overlap with whatever happens to be in print. (National broadcast and cable news mimic this process, albeit drawing more heavily from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and — increasingly as they let their gossipy freak flags fly — the New York Post.)

Although a few Web-based enterprises have begun to invest in original reporting, most are satisfied to engage in opinion and let conventional news outfits do the heavy lifting. No wonder the blogosphere pitched a fit when the Associated Press recently sought to limit Web use of the wire service’s material, charging a fee even for small excerpts of articles.

Despite the mantra for papers to “do more with less,” gutting established news organizations will invariably require sacrifices in local coverage. The Tribune Co. alone has announced cutbacks reducing its payroll by several hundred journalists, with the Los Angeles Times planning to shrink its news hole by nearly 20%.

With broadcasters wrestling with audience fragmentation and cost-cutting themselves, there’s no clear formula to fill the void. Sure, they have TMZ and other websites devoted to sleaze and celebrity dirt, but in terms of serious and especially, local, news, the options are relatively few.

The latest innovation being touted among execs is “citizen journalists,” which is basically a fancy way of saying they hope to supplant paid staff they’ve axed by enlisting the public to pitch in.

That’s worked well enough in breaking-news situations, where ordinary folks have provided compelling video and even cellphone pictures. Yet CBS affiliate WTSP in St. Petersburg is going further, advertising for 20 volunteers that the station plans to train to shoot video, delivering a minimum of 10 air-worthy clips every three months. For each clip used, the station will pay — get ready — $20! Woo-hoo, that’s almost five gallons of gas!

Somehow, that doesn’t quite sound like the solution to vacant newsrooms, but it’s certainly the old college try — for roughly old college pay.

Admittedly, the world is rapidly changing. At the current TV Critics Assn. tour, for example, seats once occupied by newspaper reporters have been filled by bloggers or websites. The room remains crowded, but it’s difficult for PR execs to determine the cost-efficiency of validating parking, much less throwing parties and feeding them.

Stations will survive, but the mind boggles at the sources from which they’ll derive news as the dominos topple. In-depth and investigative reporting are already dwindling, creating an information stream that’s often a mile wide and an inch deep.

This was the “meta” point producer David Simon cited in the final season of his classic HBO series “The Wire.” While the fictionalized Baltimore Sun within the program endured job cuts and dealt with an ambitious fabulist similar to the New York Times’ Jayson Blair, the subtext was that the paper missed every big story. Thanks to diminished staffs and institutional knowledge, those blind spots will only widen.

As print fades, then, the fallout promises to hasten broadcast news’ descent as well — from “Rip and read” to simply “Read it and weep.”

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