NPR’s David Folkenflik says newspapers’ role as watchdogs has never been more important

August 1, 2018

NPR’s David Folkenflik says newspapers’ role as watchdogs has never been more important

CLEVELAND, Ohio – NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik said the business prospects for print newspapers are declining at the same time that their watchdog role in exposing corruption and holding the powerful accountable has never been more important. 

For the public, the greatest cost of closing newspapers and laying off journalists is that without someone keeping an eye on the government, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” he told the City Club of Cleveland on Tuesday. He spent 13 years working for newspapers including the Baltimore Sun before joining NPR in 2004.

Folkenflik also appeared at the Beachwood Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library on Monday night to talk about and sign copies of his 2013 book, “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.”

Folkenflik’s talk at the City Club was timed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first issue of Cleveland’s first newspaper, The Cleaveland Gazette & Commercial Register.

Not only does Cleveland have a rich history of newspapers, but there was a time when Clevelanders could get The Plain Dealer in the morning and the Cleveland Press in the afternoon, said Robyn Minter Smyers, partner-in-charge of the Thompson Hine’s Cleveland office and president of the City Club’s board of directors. 

In 2010, Folkenflik’s father sent him articles from the Los Angeles Times chronicling an astonishing corruption investigation in the City of Bell, a community of about 30,000 just outside of L.A.

The Times uncovered that Bell’s City Council members were making six-figure incomes for part-time jobs, and an outsider who tried to run for city office was dissuaded when decapitated rabbits appeared in his backyard. Although it had been happening for years, the corruption wasn’t discovered until the Los Angeles Times poured its resources into uncovering the scandals and exposing the wrong-doers, Folkenflik said.

The Columbia Journalism Review last month reported that in communities were newspapers had diminished or closed, the cost of local bonds used to finance public works projects like schools, roads and hospitals increased. That’s because of perceptions that without journalists to keep the government in check, there was a greater likelihood of mismanaged public funds and inefficiencies, and the cities were therefore “riskier borrowers” that warranted higher interest rates.

As former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon testified to Congress in 2009, Folkenflik said, blogs and print media aren’t filling in the gaps left by shrinking newspapers, because bloggers aren’t going out to the Baltimore Zoning Board meetings that print reporters used to regularly cover. 

Although TV stations and digital-only media have their strengths, newspapers – with their enterprising journalism and sustained beat-driven coverage – have largely driven the news agenda. But the industry’s decline isn’t solely because of rising costs and fewer subscribers. Rather, like a horror story, “the trouble is coming from inside the house,” he said.

Folkenflik said that Denver Post journalists no longer work inside the Denver Post building, because last year they agreed to move to a less expensive co-working space to avoid more layoffs. Earlier this year, despite that concession, the Post still laid off a third of its staff. It’s getting to the point where newspapers are cutting “not just muscle and bone, but at times, marrow,” he said.

Last week, the New York Daily News, which has broken stories about police brutality and injustice, laid off half of its staff in a single day. When the remaining staff asked owner Tronc’s new leaders what the strategy was for the tabloid, they were told that would be worked out in coming weeks, Folkenflik said. Even the New York Times has scaled back regional coverage as it has increased its international reach and digital paywall.

No one, for example, is covering the courts in the borough of Queens, which is roughly the size and population of Houston. Without anyone watching, no one knows, for example, if the indigent are getting legal representation or if judges are saying racist things from the bench. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Folkenflik said.

Despite President Trump’s attacks on journalists and insistence that no one is reading newspapers, readership of stories from The Plain Dealer to the Washington Post and The New York Times has never been higher because of their online reach.

Like the U.S. Postal Service, which can deliver a letter from Boston to San Diego in three days, newspapers are both incredibly efficient at what they do and at the same time, “flawed, fallible, mortal, human endeavors,” Folkenflik said.

Nevertheless, he said he is seeing encouraging signs, especially after the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, that the public is taking notice and supporting the role of journalists in a democracy.

When the Vermont Standard, a 165-year-old newspaper in Woodstock, Vermont, was nearly destroyed by an early morning fire two weeks ago, people made a human chain to save all 13 of its computers so it could keep publishing, he said.

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