Gifted reporter works to save journalism

November 18, 2018

Charles M. Sennott can certainly weave a good story. The guest speaker for a meeting of the Southeast Connecticut World Affairs Council last Wednesday, Sennott had his audience enthralled as he recalled, as a young reporter for the New York Daily News, being among the first reporters arriving at the scene of the World Trade Center bombing, Feb. 26, 1993.

“Smoke had consumed the lower floors. What is amazing to think of today, no one thought it was terrorism,” he recalled. The immediate assumption was an accident.

The next challenge was how he and a colleague could get closer.

“We did what every good reporter did in New York City. You carried a yellow legal pad and you nodded like you were supposed to be there. We walked right past the police lines, right up into the World Trade Center, right into where the smoke was coming out,” Sennott told his audience, meeting at Connecticut College.

“And then I saw the crater that was five stories deep, with cars tumbled down in it. I knew it was a bombing,” he said.

Perhaps more remarkably, a couple of days later Sennott found himself in Cairo, Egypt, sent on a Middle East fact-finding mission to discover and document the seeds of terrorism. He found that visceral resentment of the United States among angry young Muslim men had transitioned into faith-fueled revenge.

It set Sennott on a career as a foreign correspondent, documenting as a bureau chief for the Boston Globe the war on terror as it revealed itself on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I was in the job of a lifetime, it was such an adventure,” he said of those days.

But now he sees journalism as threatened. The opportunities for young aspiring journalists far more limited.

The New York Daily News, which in 1993 would dispatch a young reporter a world away to get the story, a few months ago cut half its staff under its new ownership, Tronc Publishing.

From January 2001 to September 2016, the latest figures I could find from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, newspaper jobs plunged from 412,000 to 174,000. It has gotten worse since.

“The crisis in journalism is becoming a crisis for our democracy. News deserts are spreading,” Sennott said. “In many places in the country no one is watching the store and no journalism is being done. No one is at City Hall. No one is in the courts.”

The Day is not immune to the business pressures that have caused the flight of advertising dollars to other mediums, as evidenced by our recent layoffs, but it is doing far better than most. Someone is watching the store in southeastern Connecticut.

It was strong local reporting that disclosed the abuses at a public electric utility cooperative, trips taken to the Kentucky Derby and other excursions with no business justification. That reporting alerted the FBI and recently led to the indictment of five executives on charges of corruption.

What happens if there are no journalists to uncover malfeasance or inform the public of the workings of their state and local governance?

Sennott is among those trying to find new models to save professional journalism. He is the CEO and editor of The GroundTruth Project, an independent nonprofit news organization based at WGBH, a PBS affiliate in Boston.

In the last five years, GroundTruth has supported more than 150 reporting fellowships both domestically and internationally.

An offshoot of GroundTruth is Report for America, which trains and dispatches a new generation of talented young reporters versed in the use of digital tools but grounded in fundamental journalism standards and practices. They are then deployed to host newsrooms.

Democracy needs quality journalism. Finding new models to support it is a critical undertaking.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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