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Improving Local Coverage

By Greg Marx / 2013 May 17th

When my colleagues and I at the Columbia Journalism Review began the Swing States Project—critiquing and seeking to improve the quality of coverage in nine key states during the 2012 campaign—we weren’t sure quite how we would be received. Nobody likes a backseat driver, after all, and morale in many newsrooms—especially those owned by “legacy” media companies—is not necessarily high at the moment. To be sure, we ended up with our share of angry emails, tweets, and phone calls from journalists around the country who felt our critiques hadn’t quite found the right line. But we were pleased to discover that, far more often than not, reporters and editors were open to what our team of correspondents had to say—even when it was critical. They were keen to employ suggestions about how local TV station records can reveal who’s spending big money to swing election results, and eager to learn best practices for beating back political misinformation. When local reporters came across outstanding journalism, they would often share it with our writers, and of course, they appreciated it when we praised their good work. Most gratifying of all, we encountered journalists who engaged with our critique of their work—who pushed us to be better critics, and who were ready to be pushed to better serve their communities. Much has been said and written—including, fairly recently, at CJR.org—about the diminution of public-affairs coverage at the state and local level. The numbers showing a decline in reporters and in story counts are indeed grim, and, as we observed firsthand during 2012, coverage in many markets is patchy. But we also saw plenty of examples of “laurel”-worthy coverage, and an appetite for resources, tools, and know-how that will allow journalists to cover politics and policy better. As our initiative has evolved in 2013 into the United States Project, we have tried to meet that appetite. Our correspondents in the Mountain West, the Great Lakes, the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic, California, Florida, and Texas monitor coverage of federal, state, and even city issues in their regions, highlighting stellar work and identifying missed opportunities. They cover the experimentation in editorial and business-side models to support this sort of journalism in a challenging economic environment. And they are building networks of reporters with which they share resources, reporting strategies, and story ideas. Along with our regional roster, we have five “national” contributors—writers on the healthcare, tax and budget, money-in-politics, and factchecking beats, plus a roving reporter. Their subject-area expertise is a resource for our entire team, and they regularly produce primers on coverage of complicated subjects—like the rollout of the new health insurance “exchanges,” or how to tell when your congressman is skirting ethics laws to enjoy a lobbyist-sponsored junket—designed to be of use to state and local political reporters. Going forward, we expect to find new harmonies both among the regional roster and between the regional and national teams. As we look ahead to the 2014 elections and the many policy battles to be fought (and covered) before then, our goal is that the project will serve as a second layer of editorial support—providing practical guidance and constructive criticism, and exhorting journalists around the country to set ambitious standards for their work. For many years, CJR’s motto was “Strong press, strong democracy.” It’s not just the “press” anymore—but the old aphorism still applies.

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