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Tom O’Hara: Floridians lose when struggling newspapers reduce staff

Many of Florida’s public officials must be enjoying the slow death of the state’s once powerful newspapers. In the 1990s, a skeptical reporter would be asking exasperating questions every time a politician or bureaucrat made a controversial decision.

The painful shrinking of Florida’s papers continues, though. Last week Tribune Publishing offered another round of buyouts. That will mean smaller newsrooms at the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

The Miami Herald was once the state’s largest paper and considered one of the nation’s premier newspapers; now it’s the fourth largest in Florida. Even the Tampa Bay Times, owned by a nonprofit and somewhat insulated from the brutal economics of the business, is suffering now.

The digital revolution has taken a terrible toll on newspapers. Floridians who care about how they are governed, whether they realize it or not, are among the victims.

“The sad truth is that coverage of government at every level has declined each year over the past decade or so, but state and local coverage has fallen farther and faster,” said Doug Clifton, former editor of the Miami Herald and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

“And the end is not in sight.”

Some media optimists say bloggers, digital companies and nonprofit organizations will fill the void. Clifton isn’t buying it.

Even the most civic-minded bloggers can’t replace professional journalists, and “the nonprofit press can play an augmenting role yet it suffers the same malady as the commercial press, a paucity of money,” he said.

Diane McFarlin, the dean of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and former publisher of the Sarasota Herald Tribune, is no more sanguine than Clifton.

“The math says it all: Most newsrooms are half the size they were 10 years ago,” she said. “As a result, elected officials and bureaucrats are operating in the shadows to a greater extent than ever before … The scariest part of this is that citizens don’t know what they don’t know.”

McFarlin praised the Herald and Tampa Bay Times for creating a joint bureau in Tallahassee. Collaboration, not competition, is what’s needed to survive when readers and advertisers are disappearing.

But even the combined bureau can’t begin to provide the quality of state-government coverage that Florida’s newspapers once did, said Mary Ellen Klas, chief of the combined Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.

In 2000, she said, there were more than 100 reporters covering the Legislative Session. In 2010, there were only about 40. The recent addition of online reporters has stabilized the size of the Capitol press corps, but the newcomers are writing mostly for political consultants and lobbyists.

In the past, Klas said, “the press corps kept the heat on an issue until it resulted in changed behavior.”

Now, “those who want to avoid the Sunshine in Tallahassee just pretend we don’t exist or ignore the exposés that raise questions, holding out hope that with time we’ll move on to another story or just go away.”

Newspapers increasingly ignore state and local government coverage at their peril, said Marty Merzer, a respected reporter who retired from the Herald and settled in Tallahassee.

Failing to cover government “is dereliction of duty,” and editors and publishers who are responsible for that lack of coverage “should be ashamed of themselves.”

He notes that in large markets, large cities now have virtually no newspaper coverage. And veteran reporters are being replaced by inexperienced ones.

“The downsized, newbie-intensive news staffs couldn’t find their way to those areas if they had Google maps tattooed into their palms,” Merzer said.

He said today’s newspaper executives are contributing to the problem by opting to cover trivial issues rather than government. He gives this example:

Until one reporter was dispatched to the Capitol about a month ago, the Gannett-owned Tallahassee Democrat had gone several years without any full-time staffer “assigned to cover the Legislature or the governor’s office or any state agency or state employees. Think about that: The only newspaper in the capital of the nation’s third largest state did not cover a single element of state government,” he said.

“At the same time, however, the Democrat did have a full-time food and fitness writer who covered the then-editor’s exercise program. I’m not making that up.”

Some digital media are nibbling around the edges of Florida politics and government, but Clifton, McFarlin, Klas and Merzer don’t have much hope that they’ll provide the kind of in-depth, dogged and knowledgeable coverage that newspapers once did.

Crooked politicians will benefit and citizens will lose.

Said McFarlin: “Democracy is sure to be undermined if public officials aren’t held accountable by watchful and resourceful media.”

Tom O’Hara is a veteran newspaperman. He is the former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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