In Montgomery, watchdog reporting on a budget

The Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama’s state capital might be the new poster child for the harm done to basic watchdog journalism by Gannett’s newsroom cost cutting. As near as I can tell, the Advertiser has been relying more or less exclusively on the Associated Press to handle coverage of the state legislature since lawmakers started the current session in early February. Again, this is the state capital‘s daily newspaper.

One of my readers says the paper’s legislative reporter left last fall, and was not replaced. I asked top Editor Wanda Lloyd in an e-mail whether this was true. She replied: “We’ve hired someone to cover state government and he’s starting in two weeks.” She declined to be more specific when I pressed for details.

The idea that a state capital paper would outsource all its legislative coverage to the AP would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. It would have been deemed an abdication of fundamental responsibility for watchdog reporting: Keeping an eye on government to make sure elected leaders do their job and don’t abuse power. Gannett papers in the seats of power, state capitals, carry an extra responsibility in this regard. That means cities including Phoenix, Tallahassee, Indianapolis, Nashville — and Montgomery.

But this is the new reality, one I’m not sure Corporate fully appreciates. Otherwise, management wouldn’t whipsaw publishers and editors with demands for budget cuts — while simultaneously urging them to bolster watchdog journalism, to save the print version of papers. “Our watchdog role is perceived as central to our responsibility as a local newspaper,” the recent Gannett Newspaper Division Print Task Force‘s 14-page report says, in a series of recommendations. “As economic pressures persist, ensure that we maintain the expertise in our Information Centers to provide strong watchdog and in-depth reporting.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with AP stories about Alabama state lawmakers — except that you can now get that stuff all over, courtesy of the Internet. What incentive do readers have to go to the Advertiser for state government coverage? What message is Gannett sending to Montgomery readers once accustomed to some of the nation’s best journalism? When Gannett bought the Advertiser in 1995, the paper had won three Pulitzer Prizes. The second, in 1970, was for “reports that exposed a commercial scheme in using Alabama prisoners for drug experimentation.” Sounds like state government watchdog reporting at its finest.

In staffing and circulation, the Advertiser is typical of many Gannett papers. Corporate says it employs 375. Daily circulation is 45,000; Sunday is 53,000. Montgomery, meanwhile, is a typical midsize American city, with about 200,000 residents.

Now, I’ve taken a couple shots at Lloyd over the Advertiser‘s 11th-hour decision last year to cancel three summer internships because of budget cuts. But you know what? I’m sympathetic to Lloyd. Corporate keeps putting the squeeze on its newsrooms to do more with less. And this is one of the results.

Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the sidebar, upper right.

[Image: this morning’s Advertiser, Newseum. The front page carries an AP story about slowing state tax collections]

15 Responses to “In Montgomery, watchdog reporting on a budget”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    And it’s not just watchdog beats that are left unfilled. Beats considered key to attracting the demographics the paper lusts after are left empty. One person resigns and suddenly that money, long budgeted for, no longer exists.

  2. Jim Hopkins Says:

    To all: What about your newspaper? How is staffing now, vs. a year ago, on city, county and state government beats?

  3. Anonymous Says:

    from an ex Louisville Courier-Journalist – when I came to the C-J (post-Gannett, pre-evisceration, the paper had 5 staffers in the state capitol bureau, added two for the legislative sessions and regularly had beat reporters come over to cover major stories in their areas of responsibility. The result was state coverage no other news outlet could hope to approach, and regular thumping of the Lexington Herald-Leader on major stories. Today, some 15 years later, the C-J capital bureau is down to two reporters, with one additional for session help, legislative coverage and state govt. coverage is greatly diminished and the paper regularly gets beat on big stories not only by the Herald-Leader, but even by TV stations. It has been a near total-abrogation of any meaningful watchdog responsibility, and would be total save for the efforts of the valiant few who soldier on.

  4. Newsdog Says:

    It’s not just a Gannett thing. Newspapers everywhere have been cutting back on their state government coverage. I worked for the Advertiser in the 1980s and we had a mixed bag in terms of state capitol coverage. One of our reporters there was considered a shill for certain legislators and wasn’t reliable. We got better coverage of state government issues from reporters who weren’t based in the capitol each day. Also, the AP bureau in Montgomery has the best state government reporters in the state. So, while it’s a shame the Advertiser doesn’t have a full-time reporter in the capitol, it’s not as bad as it could be.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Booth Newspapers closed its Lansing bureau recently, although I think there’s someone still covering the beat. The Lansing State Journal doesn’t have anyone covering state government now because that reporter retired, although the position has been posted.
    So it’s happening at more than one paper, although it seems to me there should be more than one person covering that beat anyway.
    What if the Washington Post didn’t cover the federal government? Just get wire?

  6. Anonymous Says:

    The Courier-Journal still has a reporter in DC, strangely enough. You’d think with this emphasis on local-local that that would have been one of the positions to go, along with most of the state bureaus.

  7. Jim Hopkins Says:

    Newsdog says: “the AP bureau in Montgomery has the best state government reporters in the state. So, while it’s a shame the Advertiser doesn’t have a full-time reporter in the capitol, it’s not as bad as it could be.”

    That’s wonderful. But shouldn’t the state capital’s daily paper field the best reporters? Otherwise, what’s the paper’s competitive advantage?

  8. Anonymous Says:

    From an ex-Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, Louisiana) newsroom employee, the newsroom there is down significantly in numbers.

    The daily circ in Lafayette is around 42,000. Sunday is in the 50,000s (or at least it used to be.)

    Since October, there’s been an exodus from the newsroom. The religion, courts and police reporters have left and none of those jobs have been filled – leaving SIX reporters on the entire metro staff (including the business reporter). The education reporter is leaving next week. To date, none of the positions has been filled.

    It’s a joke. Oh – features has a total of two reporters. To add to the confusion, three mid-level editors have also left since October. None of them have been replaced either. There are right at 30 people working in the entire newsroom – including two clerks, sports, photo, online and the copy desk. Five of the staffers are photographers. At least seven are editors of one level or another. By my count, that leaves less than 20 people to do the heavy-lifting to put out a daily newspaper, a weekly and two monthly glossy magazines.

    Wonderously, they’re able to do it all with NO overtime.

  9. newsdog Says:

    They SHOULD field the best reporters for the beat, but they don’t. They probably never will, either. The paper’s circulation size is too small to support the higher salaries. When I worked in Montgomery, we thought the AP staffers were rich, which gives you an idea of the pay scales. What could work would be to have a talented assignment editor, a couple of aggressive younger reporters who don’t mind working for peanuts for a couple of years and have them pound away on the beat.

  10. newsdog Says:

    What’s more discouraging about today’s front page is that there isn’t a bylined staff-written story on it. There’s a story about Bush appointing a local lawyer to the EEOC and another one about the paper’s web site. But there’s no local enterprise. There’s really nothing to read.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    And don’t expect any help from GNS, Gannett’s wire service in D.C., which used to loan reporters to papers way back when. People are slowly coming to the realization that Gannett cares more about the bottom line (and producing coverage people don’t want and can’t use) than filling positions that have been left vacant. Yet, another of the wire service’s political correspondents is leaving, no doubt overworked by covering national news for nearly a dozen papers. One person can’t do all of that – not effectively. Face it: Gannet has made cuts so broad and so viscerally deep it may not recover. People don’t want and often don’t have to stay at smaller papers where they are expected to work extra hard for less pay. Honestly, would you?

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Hiring weak journalists and poor efforts to keep good ones are two reasons it’s hard to keep people in Montgomery. Some staffers say the newsroom managers lack the ability to evaluate and coach their reporters. Why teach when you can just rewrite everything?

  13. Anonymous Says:

    If the situation at the Gannett paper in Lafayette, Louisiana, is true, as described by anon 4/02 9:04 a.m., how could a daily paper be put out with that few people? Could someone check that? Surely those numbers aren’t right? That doesn’t seem possible.

    And no overtime? Come on? Who are these people kidding?

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Without doing a head count, I’m pretty sure the newsroom count at Montgomery isn’t much higher than that cited for Lafayette. When I was at Montgomery six years ago I found Metro woefully understaffed, but the numbers have been cut considerably since then. Same for Sports, Copy Desk & Features.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    I work at the Adv… And AP sure doesnt have the best state capitol reporters in Alabama. Those go to the Birmingham News and the Mobile Press Register. Hands down.

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