Journalism’s Overreporting Problem

Right now, in the United States the presidential campaign season is hitting its stride, and all the big news organizations that are still alive have an abundance of reporters on that beat. Frankly I’m far too lazy to do any real research into this, but I’m confident in saying that every majors new organization has a least one reporter following the race, and that’s at least a dozen reporters too many.

Political horse races are an easy and banal beat. The vast majority of the stories that reporters spend their time covering are the one they’re being horse-fed by the campaigns. These reporters are jumping campaign bus to campaign bus on their way from campaign stop to campaign stop, hopefully pausing once in a while to actually put their ear to the ground and learn what people feel about all the hubbub.

Obviously there are uses to having all these journalists. Sometimes they get to ask the candidates real questions, and sometimes those questions won’t be met with a well-rehearsed dodge. And when those situations arise, it’s nice to think that your reporter will be there to ask really penetrating and valuable questions that shed new light on the story.

But has that happened yet this campaign season? Were all the beat reporters in the White House in the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003 of any value at all in making the country more aware of the war’s foolishly assembled proximate causes? Were that same cluster of reporters any better at asking the hard questions about what would happen after the country’s inevitable victory?

Defenders of the old journalistic order act as though it’s a catastrophe every time a paper cuts its staff. As though we’re losing some valuable insight into the ways of the world. But the simple reality is that for most of the 20th century reporters served in massively inefficient silos. Every paper, magazine, radio station, and TV channel that wanted a seat at the journalistic table acted as though it existed in a vacuum, and that it was truly vital that they were at the battlefront of every war, at every campaign stop, in every capital where things may happen.

In the well-connected world we currently inhabit the value of reporting for yourself from the campaign trail is massively marginal. Almost no value is realized by having ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, The New York Times, et al following the same campaign in almost the self-same way. What we really could see some benefit from, where these old dinosaurs could really prove the value of their massive staffs, would be to take 10 or 20 reporters currently following every moment of the campaign and disperse them across Washington looking for the under-reported stories. There are certainly important things going on in that town that aren’t sufficiently reported-on for people out here in the world.

The problem that news organizations still don’t have their heads around is the value of truly unique reporting in the networked world. When the paper was the way most people got their news, it was valuable for the paper to focus on the biggest 20 stories in the world and provide up-to-date reports on it. The economics even allowed them to have their own man on each of those scenes. It’s become increasingly clear in the dawn of the 21st century that there’s no room for that model any more.

Perhaps what we need instead is to have a few reporters per issue or candidate. One woman covering Mitt Romney’s campaign will be the one the New York Times gets a progress report from. And when ABC needs a stand-up piece on the front-runner, they go to her. And when Time wants  a longer think-piece about the implications of the Romney campaign, they also go to her. This sort of freelance-reporting seems like a pretty obvious way the journalism business could save money and sacrifice minimal value.

What’s absolutely clear is that shredding the vestigial print-business isn’t the only thing old-school news organizations will need to do in a new world. The sheer volume of people currently dispatched to report on all the latest bleatings of the campaigns drives that point home crystal clear.