National Press Club

Panel: Declining newspapers, rising social media present challenge to reporters, politicians and local democracy

August 2, 2019 | By Lorna Aldrich | lorna2@verizon.net

Five former Regional Reporters Association presidents who also were National Press Club presidents attended the Aug. 1 event sponsored by the RRA and the National Press Club Journalism Institute: (l-r) Tommy Burr, Tammy Lytle, Larry Lipman, Jonathan Salant and Jerry Zremski.

Five former Regional Reporters Association presidents who also were National Press Club presidents attended the Aug. 1 event sponsored by the RRA and the National Press Club Journalism Institute: (l-r) Tommy Burr, Tammy Lytle, Larry Lipman, Jonathan Salant and Jerry Zremski.

A sharp decline in the number of regional reporters and the rise of social media is changing how Washington is covered for local readers and also transforming democracy, according to panelists at an Aug. 1 event cosponsored by the Regional Reporters Association and the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute.

Starkly presenting the challenge to journalism was Michael Barthel, senior researcher at Pew Research Center. Over the past 30 years, he said, newspapers' ad revenues and circulation have declined by half, and over the past 10 years their staffs have declined by half. Now more people get news from social media than print.

Tamar Hallerman, president of the RRA and Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noted that membership in the RRA has declined from 230 when the organization was founded 30 years ago to 55 today, reflecting the trends. Members of the RRA track Washington developments that are relevant to the regions outside Washington that their papers serve.

Former National Press Club and RRA President Jerry Zremski, a Washington reporter for The Buffalo News for 30 years, said, “I feel like I’m working all the time now. If something is breaking, I file right away or I Tweet it right away.”

When he started, there were two Buffalo News reporters in Washington and they covered committee hearings chaired by their local member in Congress. But now, said Zremski, he is alone and tries to focus on bigger stories. He said he writes fewer stories about the process of legislation.

Even global stories can engage his readers when he describes the local effects, he said, citing a piece he wrote on the effect of climate change on Buffalo.

Former Rep. Ryan A. Costello, R-Pa., who served two terms, said, “I found it very frustrating as an elected official because the rules of the game have changed.”

In the past, he said, an elected official could develop a relationship of trust with a reporter who would give him credibility with his constituents. But now, with the presence of Twitter, the way to get the message out changed -- a real challenge, he said.

Fewer people read newspapers, and officials who learn to use Twitter tend toward sensationalism, while others, who might serve better, don’t get the attention, he added. “As a consequence, our democracy suffers.”

Costello related a striking incident early in the Trump Administration when the president came to a meeting of a Republican group in the basement of the Capitol and threatened to Tweet and “cause an explosion” if the group did not do what he wanted.
.
Former Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who served 24 years in Congress, said the decline in local papers makes it difficult for a government official to get space unless there is a scandal. He agreed with Costello that the situation erodes local democracy.

“Politics have been nationalized,” Moran said. He emphasized particularly the banning of earmarks, items that specify funds for individual local projects in appropriations bills. The ban, he said, deprives members of Congress of service to their constituents.

Gerrymandering has further let to elections nationalized around cultural issues, Moran said.

An audience member noted that one important result of the decline of newspapers is a reduction in coverage of court cases.

Zremski underlined the point. He noted that he covered Supreme Court cases relevant to his readers when his newspaper had two Washington reporters, but had to cut back when he started working alone.

Another attendee pointed out that the decline in newspapers made it difficult for public relations practitioners to reach their audiences.

Former Club and RRA President Tommy Burr asked whether the panel could point to positive developments for regional reporters. Zremski responded by predicting that there would be a different economic model, but that he couldn’t forecast it.

In a separate conversation, Burr said he was thinking of his paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, which is becoming a nonprofit, as a possible alternative model.