David Westphal: How to Rebuild Political Coverage to Better Serve the Public

From a post by David Westphal headlined “Rebuilding political coverage to better serve the public”:

This is an important moment for the direction of national political coverage. New editors are coming aboard the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and (before too long) The New York Times. And now, with the Trump presidency behind us, we’ve just ended one of the most tumultuous presidential cycles in history. I hope editors and other news leaders take advantage of this moment to step back, take a breather, look around, consider what it is that people need, what our country needs, and set new priorities for their political news reports. In my view, significant changes are needed.

For starters, I’d seriously expand coverage of state and local politics and government, even at the expense of Washington datelines. One of the things I liked best about the New York Times, when I was cub editor of the Cedar Falls (Iowa) Record in the 1970s, was the ambitious way it kept watch on state legislatures and governors offices….

By monitoring government and political developments at the state level, The Times was able to spot new initiatives spreading across the country and bring its coverage of government much closer to home. It showed, in often unexpected ways, how states shared common ground….

In the decades since, coverage of government and politics by national news organizations has become increasingly Washington-based, increasingly campaign-oriented, and in my view, increasingly distant from the broader ways government affects citizens throughout the country….

One of the biggest challenges, as my former colleague Jay Rosen has written, is defining news after Trump who, after all, has been a ratings and subscription bonanza for newspapers, news sites and TV news. (As former CBS chief Les Moonves famously said about the Trump campaign, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”) It will be a challenge…to ease back even a little from coverage of the intensely partisan rhetoric that has been good for the news business.

But the stars are aligned for potential change. The next presidential election is almost four years away. And within the next year or so, new leaders will be taking over not just the Post and Times but also the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and others. Just as important, these news organizations are brimming with resources. They could try some stuff.

I cannot say whether the changes I suggest below would be business winners. But I do believe they’d be successful in two ways: They’d provide a more accurate picture of how government and politics work in the lives of American citizens. And because that picture encompasses state and local governments, which are generally less partisan, it would help counter the fever pitch we see reflected in Washington politics.

I’d begin by assigning a reporter — better yet a reporting team — to track government trends at the state level, particularly state legislatures but also governor and attorney general offices and state supreme courts. For that matter, I’d add reporting coverage of trends in city halls and county boards….

This kind of coverage is all the more important at a time when local news resources are quickly vanishing. Of course, it is no substitute for local reporting. Unfortunately, we have gotten to the point where, in many places, there is no reporting on local governance — a situation that is destined to get worse before it gets better. Having more reporting eyes on these arenas would be a valuable contribution to the public’s understanding.

When you think about the huge impact of state and local governments on American lives, and measure that against what we see in national news coverage, you have a giant mismatch. The public would be better served if the gap were closed.

David Westphal is a longtime newspaper reporter and editor, having served as managing editor of the Des Moines Register and Washington bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers.
While he was at The Des Moines Register, the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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