Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Crisis at the Gazette, Part Three

The best newspapers are the ones that attract, develop and retain reporters with experience in and knowledge of their coverage areas, lots of contacts and – most importantly – good long-term relationships with their sources.

The Gazette’s business model makes this almost impossible.

Low pay and few opportunities for advancement create high turnover at the Gazette. The newspaper is always hiring because people are always leaving. For example, since the early summer of 2007, three different community reporters have covered the Silver Spring area. The median tenure of community reporters may be as low as 18 months. And that was before the cataclysmic July 31 layoffs which forced the remaining employees to work longer and harder to cover their departed colleagues’ work.

I have known quite a few Gazette reporters and have always liked them. Every one of them has been smart, fair, polite and has turned out well-written work. But they come and go. Silver Spring has over 70,000 people, five County Council Members, sixteen state legislators and dozens – perhaps hundreds – of hard-charging grass-roots activists. How can anyone come in from a different part of the country and learn the complete social-political landscape of the place in just a few months?

If the Gazette was truly devoted to high-quality reporting, it would invest in its reporters. Start them at modest salaries (although much higher than $26,500) and institute steep, sliding pay scales for the ones who stay. Let them hone their craft in their coverage areas and reward the ones who consistently write high-quality work. Give them a future in the company as respected professionals because that is what they are. The reward for the newspaper is a must-read product that is attractive to advertisers.

But that is not the Gazette’s way. Corporate management from the Post Company has dictated a low-wage, high-turnover business model that funnels any profits into their much-loved Kaplan division. Only the spirit and dedication of their reporters keeps their newspaper in production – but even the best of them leave. And we the readers are paying the price.

The Gazette may produce more articles about Montgomery, Prince George’s, Frederick and Carroll Counties than all other news sources combined. But if it continues to squeeze the pay of its reporters and has more layoffs, the newspaper’s quality will decline. Some community reporting areas may have to be merged – perhaps Kensington with Chevy Chase, or Silver Spring with Takoma Park – if the number of reporters keeps shrinking. That will mean fewer articles spread over larger geographic areas. Analysis and fact-gathering will wane. Reporting will be replaced with transcription.

Some believe that blogs will replace mainstream media sources like the Gazette. I disagree. As a blogger, I depend on quality reporting from the Gazette as much as any of their other readers. Blogs combine fact, opinion and bias to wildly varying degrees of effectiveness. There is still a role – and will always be a role – for true practitioners of the noble profession of journalism.

A place without reporting is a place that does not – cannot – know itself. The Crisis at the Gazette is a crisis for their readers. It is time for the Gazette to stop the layoffs, compensate its employees fairly and treat them with respect. Anything less and we will not get the reporting quality we deserve.

Editor's Note: There are continuing developments on this story and we will be following up later this week.