Part of the fun of being a journalist is that you get to tell stories about your crusty old bosses. So here’s mine: At my first job, I would go to my editor, fumbling with an article I didn’t quite know what to do with, worried I wasn’t getting just the right point across. And he’d tell me what his boss had advised him: “Your job is to find stuff out and put it in the paper.” Except he used a stronger word than “stuff.” This was good advice, and it sums up most of what we’ve learned about stories of all kinds over the last 2,500 years: People like to find out something they don’t know. If you give them that, they will come back. All good journalists know this. Two forces, however, conspire against that knowledge. One, basically, is Twitter (see Technology). Journalists are under constant pressure—some self-imposed—to take time off from finding stuff out to alternately argue with and flatter their audiences. Tweeting is journalists’ worst habit and guiltiest pleasure.
The other, related pressure is that the resources devoted to actual newsgathering by many organizations are shrinking fast. This is another case of “winner take all” economics. A few organizations are flourishing. But local news outlets are in crisis, hit by wave after wave of layoffs (see Talking Points). After all the cuts, local and regional papers can spend less and less on finding stuff out. There are exceptions: The Miami Herald has excellent reporting from Latin America; The Philadelphia Inquirer is a local investigative powerhouse. But by and large local news is caught between the attractions of the national stage and the diminishing opportunities for reporting. The best national news organizations will survive the bloodletting, and may even benefit in the end. But the prospects for local news are not good. Marketplaces don’t care that the news “should” or “must” be saved, and our communities will know less when the last crusty old editor disappears from the city desk.