Filling the cracks

The news business is changing so quickly that sometimes you have to stop and take stock. Shawn Zeller did just that in his Washington Notebook report for this issue, and what he found was discouraging.

Zeller discovered that over the last five years every Bay State newspaper except the Boston Globe has pulled its reporters out of the nation’s capital. The Globe continues to cover Washington, but its bureau there is only two-thirds of its original size.

Stories like this are becoming all too familiar as newspapers struggle to remain afloat. There are fewer local reporters in Washington, but there are also fewer at the State House and fewer overall. It’s the type of attrition that you barely notice, and that’s what’s really scary about it. News coverage is disappearing and, unless you’re paying close attention, you don’t even know what’s missing.

My biggest concern is for the watchdog role the press plays. I remember a meeting of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center last year. The center’s board voted to hand out $25 million in tax credits to 28 companies, with more than half of the tax breaks going to three very profitable firms. It was a revealing look at the use of taxpayer funds, yet I was the only reporter in the room.

CommonWealth, along with a handful of other nonprofit entities like the Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University and Professor Walter Robinson’s investigative reporting collaborations at Northeastern Univ­er­sity, is filling some of the growing cracks in news coverage.

We’ve had some early successes. Jack Sullivan reported last year on how the concrete ties supporting South Shore commuter railroad lines were falling apart prematurely (“Back Tracking,” CW, Summer ’09). The MBTA, which owns the lines, minimized the problem initially but this year was forced to admit that the crumbling railroad ties were a safety concern. The T now plans to replace every one of the concrete ties at a cost of more than $90 million.

Last year, as a result of our coverage of state tax credits, Gov. Deval Patrick included a provision in his budget proposal that would have required state agencies to identify tax credit recipients and disclose the number of jobs they create. The Patrick proposal stalled last year, with the Senate balking at its disclosure requirements. But in May the Senate changed course. Greater transparency in the issuance of tax credits now seems likely.

Our online magazine this year reported on patronage at the state’s probation department (we were the first to report that Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien’s daughter was working there) and the tug of war for control of the agency between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The Globe’s Spotlight Team in May weighed in with a devastating two-part series on the agency that prompted the Supreme Judicial Court to put O’Brien on paid leave and bring in a special counsel to investigate the agency.

This issue of the magazine continues to explore issues receiving scant attention elsewhere. Sullivan spent more than two months investigating one of the chief causes of health care inflation—the exploding use of medical imaging tests like MRIs and CT scans. He concludes that many of the tools at the state’s disposal for reducing health care costs are not being used effectively.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Last fall, Michael Jonas reported on a growing body of research suggesting that there are substantial differences among teachers in their ability to drive student learning (“Teacher Test,” CW, Fall ’09). That research is fueling calls for the firing of some teachers and dramatic changes in the way the rest are evaluated. In this issue, economist Ed Moscovitch, relying on his own research, suggests teachers are being scapegoated to explain differences in achievement that are mostly a function of student demographics. He says that if the teachers in Wellesley and Lowell switched places there would be very little difference in student outcomes in either district.

Going beneath the headlines. Exploring alternative viewpoints. This is what we do at CommonWealth. Good journalism illuminates important issues and can be a powerful force for change. Happy beach reading.