Communication Breakdown

Rep. Daniel Bosley, a Democrat from North Adams who is known around the State House as a master of public policy, has a complaint: “No one covers all the serious stuff we do seriously any more.” Bosley has been at the center of such major legislative decisions as whether to legalize casino gambling and how to deregulate the electric utilities. But as he reflected about news coverage of this year’s legislative session, the event that stands out in his memory for drawing the greatest media interest was the hearing on making the Boston cream doughnut the state’s “official doughnut.”

Bosley understands the appeal of such light, empty-calorie news to entertainment-oriented TV newscasters. What worries him is that he sees a similar lack of interest in substance among the print press.

“Corny as it sounds,” Bosley said, “I ran for office because I thought I could make a difference by being one of about 200 people in this building who make decisions affecting the lives of six million people. By the same token, the press should be concerned about explaining these decisions that affect everyone’s lives.”

It’s a common lament among legislative insiders. Where have all the reporters gone?

Savvy lawmakers now recognize that state capitals have become the real centers of power in America today. Lobbyists and special interests certainly know it. But based on diminishing news holes for the nuts and bolts of state government and policy–so-called “institutional coverage”–only the media, and the public they are supposed to inform, have failed to catch up to this seismic change.

“There are a lot of great stories about government out there, but they require a lot of time, and media outlets aren’t willing to give it,” said Charles Baker, the former Secretary of Administration and Finance in the Weld-Cellucci administrations who is now president and CEO of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. “Instead, they have these teams who investigate government. Some of that work gets attention and helps change something, but there’s a profound indifference in covering the public sector straight up.”

Baker links a decline in serious State House coverage to a decline in the media’s top menu item: conflict.

“In the mid-1980s, we had the boom, then the [Dukakis] presidential campaign, then the bust, all of which created a lot of interest,” Baker said. Then newly elected Gov. William Weld and top legislative leaders agreed to weekly Monday meetings at which they could hash out policy disagreements behind closed doors, leaving both political ego and public posturing outside. “Once the branches agreed not to beat up on each other, the conflict disappeared” and with it a lot of State House reporting presence, Baker said. “People will cover politics, but not policy.”

State House reporters “will cover politics, but not policy.”

The way the state’s two largest newspapers, The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, covered the end of this year’s formal legislative session makes Baker’s point.

For its front-page story on Aug. 1, the day after the session’s final hours, the Globe chose the “remarkable death… despite broad support” of a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage. The story blamed the proposal’s demise squarely on House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, “the only outspoken critic of the proposal outside of the business community.”

By contrast, the Herald barely mentioned the minimum wage story, despite the issue’s special importance to much of its lower-income and small-business readership. Instead, of all the previous night’s action, the Herald splashed page one with vintage talk-show fodder: “State pols roll out pork barrel.” The lead paragraph cited a “$395 million spending spree [by lawmakers] for pet projects” around the state.

Even if all of the capital projects involved were wasteful–some no doubt were, but others targeted badly needed physical improvements–the spending cited by the Herald represents less than two percent of the total state budget.

Boston Herald political editor Joe Sciacca said the story led the paper because it was the only real news of the session’s final night. Two weeks before the Globe, the Herald had reported that Finneran planned to kill the minimum wage bill. The demise of bills regulating bank ATM fees and health maintenance organizations had also been reported. “To report that nothing happened is not really a news story,” Sciacca said. “But the fact that they go into a spending frenzy in the final hours is something the public wants and needs to know.”

Lack of follow-through

But in both cases–the minimum wage and capital spending–neither paper put much behind the headline, either on Aug. 1 or the days before or after that. Neither paper did an analysis of minimum-wage economics. And neither focused on the real story behind the last-minute capital spending, which isn’t so much the dollar amount but what the “spending spree” might have meant. Was the Legislature sending a signal of a return to the days of fiscal irresponsibility or was it taking advantage of temporary budget surpluses to pay for projects without incurring long-term debt?

“It’s easy for the public to read a story about pork and easy for a newspaper to run it as a lead,” said Rep. James Marzilli, D-Arlington, a key backer of the minimum-wage bill. “It’s much more difficult to do a thoughtful analysis of what the Legislature did or failed to do between 9 p.m. and midnight on a Friday evening.”

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis said such inconsistent coverage has become more commonplace since the years he occupied the corner office. Even when newspapers do pick up a policy story, they often let it drop, both in the news and editorial sections.

“A good, aggressive press corps ought to put pressure on public officials to act,” he said. “But today, they do these stories and they die. Politicians were much more afraid of the press 10, 15 years ago than today. That reflects a press that today is hit-and-run and doesn’t demand action. It isn’t just the kind or lack of coverage, but the lack of coordination between news and editorial. It used to be that if the Globe had a good story, they didn’t let up. For those of us who were on the receiving end of these things, it wasn’t fun, but it certainly resulted in action.”

“Politicians were much more afraid of the press 10, 15 years ago than today.”
–Former Gov. Michael Dukakis

The former presidential candidate, who now teaches at Northeastern University, faults office holders for failing to develop steady relationships with reporters.

“Those on the public side must be much more knowledgeable about how to use the press,” said Dukakis, who as a young state representative regularly made personal visits to newsrooms and bureaus to pitch his ideas. “When I do the press piece [of my course], I teach students how to deal with press hits. But the most important thing is how to use the press to advance programs and policies that are important.”

Judy Meredith, a longtime Beacon Hill lobbyist for human service and other advocacy groups, said it’s still possible to get coverage of serious issues in print–if you know how. “I use something called the ‘universal rap,'” she said. With politicians, the rap goes this way, she said: “Something is in crisis because–. You should care because–. The way to fix it is to do–.”

With reporters, the pitch changes only slightly: “‘This is a goddamn good story because–. Your editors and readers will like it because–. And it’s easy to write.’ It always succeeds if I can put my public policy campaign into that box. But if I don’t have a doable solution or things are not in crisis, the story won’t get in.”

In other words, package ideas in a way that will appeal to the often limited attention spans of reporters and the time and space pressures on them–and to what even editors acknowledge is an obsession with stories hot enough for page one.

Missing the boat

These days, issue-oriented stories often end up in business sections deep inside the newspaper–at least until some eye-catching political conflict piece emerges. A classic case of an enormously important story that was relegated to the business section is the deregulation of the electric utilities.

The Herald, at least, occasionally took a skeptical look at the proposal as it unfolded. But a review of about 100 Globe stories reveals relatively little skeptical analysis of claims of consumer benefits from deregulation. Indeed, the stories often read like pro-utility press releases:

“Customers would get an automatic 15 percent reduction in their electricity bills for the next seven years starting in March under a massive utility deregulation bill unveiled yesterday on Beacon Hill.” (Page one, Oct. 30, 1997.)

“Consumers will get a 10 percent rate cut in their electric bills–and an additional 5 percent discount about 18 months after that–under a compromise reached on Beacon Hill … yesterday.” (Page one, Nov. 19, 1997.)

Only months later–long after the bill was law–did the Globe give similar page-one play to a rather different angle: “To consumers, utility deregulation is supposed to mean one thing: a 10 percent reduction on their electric bills beginning March 1,” said a Jan. 7 story. “But according to a little-known provision in a deal with the state, three of the Bay State’s biggest utilities will be able to charge their customers extra if their profits fall short of pre-set levels.”

Globe Political Editor Doug Bailey said deregulation could have been better covered. “That was one of those stories that ping-ponged between business and State House reporters,” he said. “To most reporters and their editors it seemed to be one of the dullest stories. But it was one of the most important pieces, and as it turns out, the bill was written mostly by lobbyists.”

Coverage of another story seems to indicate that neither paper has learned the lesson when it comes to analyzing claims made by proponents.

A review of stories in both papers about Boston’s effort to host the next Democratic National Convention shows repeated use of the claim that the event will pump $150 million (or $200 million, or $300 million, depending on the day and the story) into the local economy. But not once has that contention been critically examined–such as by deducting from that figure the hotel and other business that will be displaced by such a mega-event.

Newsroom culture

Rather than dig into such economic analysis, reporters aim for the hit that will get them on page one. Now more than ever, said Bailey.

“If I were entering the business today, I’d see who’s getting the biggest splash, and I doubt it would be the person doing issue-related grunt work,” said Bailey. “I don’t think the reporter who hunkers down and covers every little movement of an institution is as valued at newspapers today as they used to be.”

Bailey denied that the Globe has made any conscious decision to reduce institutional coverage of day-to-day committee hearings and other basic workings of government. The problem, he said, is that young reporters shun such assignments, even though they offer fertile fields for source development.

“The problem I have sending rookie reporters to the State House is they all want to do the page-one takeout. Especially with new reporters, we want the committees and budget debate covered. But these young reporters say to me, ‘Where does a 40-line story inside Metro get me?’ With their eyes on their careers, it’s not going to get them anywhere.”

Bailey said he nonetheless assigns them to such stories. “But it becomes an exhausting process. Reporters don’t want to go to the State House and will instead try to cut out some area of specialization.” Bailey concedes that rather than battle reluctant reporters, he sometimes leaves a State House story uncovered. “It does wear you out after a while,” he explained.

Of course, the reporters’ mindset is shaped largely by the stories that editors in fact do put on page one. And except for kick-offs of multi-part series designed as much (if not more) to win awards as to inform readers, serious issue pieces that effectively and creatively link the process aspect to the public interest rarely make it to the front.

Bailey agrees that none of this is good either for the press or government. Even worse, he said, is the increasing willingness of reporters to allow faxes, the Internet, and spoon-fed tips from spin masters to replace traditional shoe-leather reporting in which they actually talk to people affected by the issues. Some reporters leave their desks only to get coffee or to work out in the in-house gym.

“One of the most disheartening things I’ve found about covering politics in general is that you have reporters who can get the quick page-one hit based almost entirely on opposition research [spun by a particular candidate], and we’re all supposed to contend that it’s not happening,” he said.

The Globe has sought to get issues into the paper by publishing candidate position statements and through other steps, Bailey said. “One of the goals I set when I took this job [a year ago] was that no one would look back at the Globe at the end of the campaign this year and say no one covered the issues compared to the Herald, where I don’t see any serious issue coverage.”

Sciacca argued that what some politicians and others see as attack reporting, editors see as issue coverage.

“It strikes a nerve with people when we run a piece that is particularly aggressive,” Sciacca said. “I’ve heard people say we were too tough on [former House Speaker] Charlie Flaherty or [former Boston Mayor] Ray Flynn. But politicians have to spin things, and one way to do that is to dismiss something we do as ‘gotcha journalism.'”

“When we do a story about the state auditor being on a golf course for days at a time when he’s supposed to be working,” Sciacca said, “I see that as public interest journalism, not gotcha journalism. Reporters and politicians are always going to be adversaries, which is good for the system.”

Process and progress

The Herald‘s redesign, unveiled in August, has created more space for serious reporting and coverage of important issues, Sciacca said. However, he acknowledged his own disinterest in institutional coverage and conceded, “Reporters do fall short in covering substantive issues.”

“I don’t like to cover process, I don’t like our reporters to cover process, I don’t think the public cares about process,” he said, adding that covering public policy doesn’t necessarily require coverage of the process by which it is created.

“I don’t like to cover process…I don’t think the public cares about process.”
–Herald Political Editor Joe Sciacca

It’s a strong current in many newsrooms: The story is not necessarily in the committee rooms at the State House, but out in the neighborhoods where people live. But if reporters are pulled away from the grinding wheels of government, are they being redeployed where the stories are? Are they still thinking about how to get at what’s important?

“The most important story in America today is the story of how we’re reorganizing our social, economic, and political systems,” said Bill Kovach, curator at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and a 30-year newspaper veteran (and an editorial advisor to this magazine). “Reporters who learn to cover that story right will be the great reporters of this coming generation. They are the Vietnam truth seekers of their time, the civil rights reporters of their times.” They and their editors must find ways to write about this transformation of American society “in a way that is not only useful, but makes the story compelling to readers,” said Kovach, who is convinced such stories are doable.

Kovach cites education coverage as an example. “Rather than covering just the politics of education, reporters need to be inside the institution, helping me as a parent understand the relationship between principal, teacher, and student,” he said. “That kind of coverage can be exciting and can have a wonderful resonance with hundreds of thousands of people with children in school.”

Instead, recent education coverage here has mostly focused on the political fallout from teacher testing and other political aspects of education reform. With a few worthy exceptions, stories have been written and filed from newsrooms, not classrooms.

What Kovach calls “bottom-up coverage” means giving daily play to such stories, not just packaging them into occasional multi-part series.

“Trying to cover process is really difficult because it’s an incremental thing,” Kovach said. “So there is a tendency to shy away from those stories unless there’s a little conflict that makes it jump off the page. Because the conflict crutch is so useful, because it works so well, journalists who cover social issues have really become stunted in their growth. It really is a deformity of the business.”

But isn’t conflict what readers really want, even if they don’t admit to it in high-minded surveys? Do newspaper readers actually want more coverage of state politics and policy? There is an argument to be made that the question is almost beside the point. The role of the press is not to put market values above its public service mission. As Thomas Jefferson envisioned things, the electorate’s ability to make wise decisions depends on a free press–one that has an obligation not just to what sells, but to what matters.

But Charlie Baker, the former Weld-Cellucci administration official and a staunch believer in the power and general correctness of market forces, doesn’t accept the premise that supply-and-demand is distorting news decisions.

Meet the Author
“Everyone says journalism just gives people what they want,” said Baker. “But in reality, people’s level of satisfaction with what they’re getting from these outlets has never been lower.”

Phil Primack, a Boston Herald business reporter from 1988 to 1996, is now a Medford-based free-lance writer. He also worked as a policy aide to Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and, briefly, as a policy advisor to House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran.