COMMENTARY: Memories, meaning and momentum, in a transforming news business
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Published: 08-Aug-2013

TULSA, OK – I grew up in a newspaper reading family – every day absorbing The Daily Oklahoman, The Oklahoma City Times (an afternoon publication) and The Oklahoma Journal. Tulsa had The World and The Tribune.

Across Oklahoma, there were some 250 newspapers, most of them community weeklies. No surprise, after a few twists and turns, I wound up in the news business. 

I commit the act of journalism every day now, most often from the Capitol in Oklahoma City. I am not often introspective about what I do, but when I slow down the tempo, I marvel at media changes – good and bad – during my career.

The handful of reporters who presently cover Oklahoma state government regularly merit a B+ for the work they do, but media management in general get a C- for decisions made to devote fewer resources to investigative journalism, coverage of Capitol events, and reporting about key agencies of the government.

Legislative season in Oklahoma City runs February through May, the busiest time for Capitol reporters. For a few weeks the pressroom bustles.

 “Off-season” comes when the Legislature is away. Then, the pressroom is quiet. Regulars include KOSU (public radio), the big two papers, The Associated Press and yours truly, for the Watchdog.org network. 

It wasn’t always quiet in the off-season. As recently as the 1990s, there were more than 1,000 state Capitol-based reporters. As traditional news business models failed, the ranks thinned. When I launched CapitolBeatOK in fall 2009, Capitol reporters across America had declined into the 300 +/- range. 

Today, there is one daily in Oklahoma City, and one in Tulsa. There are around 200 newspapers still in business across the state. And, there are simply not enough intelligent people keeping an eye on government at all levels. 

So, why I am nonetheless an optimist about the future of American journalism? 

Three things: Citizen journalism, non-profits financing strong investigative journalism, and niche publications/sites. 

First, consider the strengthening of citizen journalism, popularly known as blogging. 

A year ago, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity established  Watchdog Wire as a forum for grass roots bloggers. Months before that, Franklin began training interested citizens to identify and investigate waste, fraud and abuse in their towns and states. The result is a lot of original content that would never have been created within the framework of traditional journalism.

For instance, in North Dakota, Rob Port runs “Say Anything Blog.” Over some years, including his last few hooked to Franklin, he has emerged as one of the most knowledgeable state-based analysts. When the Washington Post blog “The Fix” identified America’s best state-based reporters, Rob made the cut.

Other vibrant blogs have great names like The Shark Tank, All-American Blogger,  and my favorite, Right Wing Sparkle.  These folks are also performing the act of journalism, whether or not they are acknowledged as doing so by the media  mainstream. And, increasingly, the best among the bloggers are incorporated into newspaper and other “legacy” media outlets.

Second, I am hopeful because of the emergence of non-profit news organizations, many operating in partnership with newspapers, television stations, radio networks and other “legacy media.”

The Watchdog.org network, the granddaddy of Franklin Center projects, has capitol bureaus in most states, including the one I operate.

On any given day, national editors distribute via the Internet links to as many as two dozen original news stories from professional journalists.

Many of us in the Watchdog.org system have partnerships with newspapers and television stations. Here in Oklahoma City, one such link-up is with News9, the CBS affiliate; and of course with The City Sentinel.

The Watchdog.org network, including my one-man shop, gets no government financing.

Another non-profit news group, Oklahoma Watch, specializing in investigative reports on issues like criminal justice reform, is privately funded, albeit with a formal presence the University of Oklahoma journalism school. 

National non-profit news groups that lean to the political Left include Pro Publica and various tax-funded news organizations. While dubious about the tax financing, I applaud getting more “eyeballs” on those who govern us. The more the merrier.

Third, I believe that specialized niche publications and community newspapers are going to survive – so long as they adapt to the Internet age. (No elaboration on that, for now.)

I mourn every time I hear about job losses in traditional media, especially newspapers, yet I retain that optimistic nature when it comes to the bigger picture, especially those acts of journalism committed around me, and explicitly protected in the Bill of Rights.

Change in the last few years has been daunting, but thanks to the ingenuity of thousands of Americans, some of them organized through the Franklin Center, journalism is positively transforming.

The ink-stained wretches of the past will, over time, be proud of their pixel-stained successors. 

NOTE: This commentary is adapted from McGuigan’s comments in a speech at the University of Tulsa this week. He and two Tulsa journalists focused on strengths and weaknesses in the Oklahoma news media’s coverage of public policy issues, as part of the Oklahoma Policy Institute’s summer program. Contact McGuigan, bureau chief for the Oklahoma City bureau of Watchdog.org, at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com .

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