All the cuts to news gathering should scare us

Mar 27, 2014

Newspapers, even big-city newspapers, are in a sorry state these days.

Thanks largely to the Internet, their circulation and advertising revenue has been in free fall, with the result that they have far less staff than they once did.

There are also fewer papers than there used to be.

Washtenaw County, outside of Ann Arbor, is home to a collection of fascinating and picturesque little towns like Manchester, Saline, Dexter, and Chelsea. Each had its own thriving weekly newspaper: The Saline Reporter, Dexter Leader, and Chelsea Standard.

Years ago I did some consulting for the local company that owned those papers and learned that no matter how physically close these places might be, the good people of Chelsea did not want Dexter news in their paper, and vice-versa.

Times are different now.

Those papers are now owned by an out-of-state branch of a venture capital outfit which is famous for showing little understanding of or interest in local concerns. This week, it announced it was merging all these papers into one common amorphous one called “Washtenaw Now.”

... we may be suffering more from the decline of our big metropolitan newspapers. True, they still cover sex scandals like a blanket.

Whatever they say, you know there will be less coverage, especially distinctly local coverage. I would bet on a revived Chevy Corvair before I’d bet on Washtenaw Now.

However, we may be suffering more from the decline of our big metropolitan newspapers.

True, they still cover sex scandals like a blanket. You can read volumes today about Wade McCree Junior, a Wayne County Circuit judge with a famous name.

The Michigan Supreme Court removed him from the bench yesterday, saying, with remarkable understatement, “that there is not much, if anything more prejudicial to the actual administration of justice than having a sexual relationship with a complaining witness (and) attempting to use the prosecutor’s office as leverage against this now ex-mistress by concocting charges of stalking and extortion against her and then lying under oath about these matters.”

Okay, that’s fascinating -- but not especially relevant to most of our lives.

Far more important to most of us is what state lawmakers do.There are far fewer reporters in Lansing these days, which means citizens miss a lot.

There are far fewer reporters in Lansing these days, which means citizens miss a lot.

We know, for example, that higher education is far more important than ever. Still, yesterday, for example, a House Higher Education subcommittee cut the governor’s higher education budget by $5 million. In the old days, that would have been reported, and people would have the opportunity to make their feelings known before the budget was finally passed and it was too late.

But try finding that in most newspapers.

Another committee voted to close a legendary reform facility, the W.J. Maxey Training School.

Meanwhile, our full-time state Senate wasted time on an utterly meaningless vote calling on Congress to call a convention of the states to pass a balanced budget amendment.

These are the same people who can’t find the time to find the money to fix our roads. I know about all of this because I have access to an expensive private news-gathering service. What worries me is that the average person doesn’t know.

If we really want a democracy in which informed citizens are making intelligent decisions, that should scare your pants off.