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State of the Media

The big term bandied about in media circles these days is impact journalism. Cause-and-effect journalism. The kind of journalism that gets people talking, uncorks indictments, passes bills, frees the unjustly incarcerated, and might convince people to pay for their news.

At the same time, more and more news veterans are worrying about the thousands of new reporters being spit out of journalism schools who could care less about game-changing journalism. They want to be Anthony “No Reservations” Bourdain. They wish their lives were as interesting as David Sedaris’, so they could write a memoir and have critics declare them the voice of a new generation. They don’t want to be I. F. “Izzy” Stone or Sy Hersh, in their thick eyeglasses, hip deep in the deadly dull but ultimately damning reporting that renders government malfeasance transparent and cleaves a lot closer to what John Henry Faulk said were our “guaranteed liberties and freedoms.”

These are the things I think about as the presidential race kicks into high gear this new year. The stakes seem higher than ever. With the economy ground to a raw nub, college graduates carrying record debt, and journalism students less certain than ever that there will be any kind of paying job in the news game, you may wonder if there are any young journalists at all willing to take on the hard, droning work of the modern muckraker.

Thankfully, there are. From the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to Southern Methodist University, students are signing up to become muckrakers.

Don’t tell Rick Perry as he continues his fevered quest to ferret out research on Texas campuses, but student journalists are researching him and other profoundly important issues in Texas and elsewhere. They are committing to a career in investigative work, and diving into it without much faith that there will be jobs with 401(k)s waiting for them when they graduate.

They are doing it as a calling, “swooping down” on government bureaucracies like a “guerilla warrior,” as Izzy Stone once put it.

At UTEP, the extraordinary “Mexodus” project is a sweeping investigative narrative, driven by student journalists, that shines a light on middle-class families fleeing Mexico because of drug-related violence. The ongoing “Light of Day” project, spearheaded by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, teaches students from universities across the state how to use public records to create investigative stories. The project has led student journalists to take long, hard looks at whether Texas schools are fully disclosing their public records.

In my investigative journalism class at the University of Texas at Austin, students spend several months looking into these issues: the breakdown in a federal system meant to protect parents against international child abductions; whether public universities are violating federal labor laws; why Texas immigration judges have the highest denial rates for asylum seekers; what happens to women in Texas when lawmakers slash health care funding; the lives of poverty-stricken college students; how U.S. policies for assimilating refugees cause further suffering for newcomers to this country.

As the new year unfolds, and you worry whether the media’s clucking prophecies (“You’ll miss the news when it’s gone”) are about to come true, take solace in the fact that there are fresh legions of young journalistic foot soldiers who are clearly not averse to investigative news.

I knew a Dallas reporter who was nicknamed, behind his back, The Reverse Nostradamus. He wrote a column that often featured excerpts from stories that had appeared decades earlier. People said he was good at predicting the past. I’m taking a crack at predicting the future:

Journalism will survive in 2012 and the years to come. The hard stories will be covered, and covered well, by young Texas reporters who are doing it because it is a calling. With no reservations.

The sad news out of San Antonio this fall is that Cary Clack, one of the stalwarts of that city’s journalism community— hell, one of the gems of modern Texas media—has left the San Antonio Express-News. The former columnist is now a senior adviser and campaign spokesperson for state Rep. Joaquin Castro’s congressional campaign.

Since the mid-1990s, Clack almost single-handedly directed news coverage to the chronically underreported black community in one of the 10 largest cities in the nation. Clack knew things—that San Antonio’s Percy Sutton served as Malcolm X’s lawyer and was the owner of the Apollo Theater in Harlem; that St. Philip’s College, one of the state’s important institutions of higher learning, battled to stay afloat.

His departure is one of 10 by African-American columnists across the nation this year. In the last few years some of the highest-profile minority journalists in this state—Linda Jones and Ira Hadnot of The Dallas Morning News, Carlos Sanchez at the Waco Herald-Tribune—left their venues.

National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) president Kathy Times said, “it’s heartbreaking to think that one-third of the black journalists in newsrooms in 2001 are not there anymore.” A study by the American Society of News Editors, released in April, shows that the percentage of minorities in newspaper newsrooms slipped for the third straight year, to 12.79 percent. With the departed went cultural reference points, institutional memories, and the righteous pressure they put on other news outlets. The Observer has struggled for years to have a staff that reflects the diversity in the state. Former editor Lou Dubose says: “During the 11 years I was there, the staff was all white, mostly male. We tried.”

Staffing is one matter, content another: Susan Currie Sivek, who did her graduate work at the University of Texas School of Journalism, wrote in a 2008 analysis of Texas Monthly that its coverage of minorities was “especially problematic.”

Sivek documented that Hispanics were on 1.8 percent of the magazine’s covers; blacks were on 3.6 percent of the covers. Hispanics were the topic of a feature story 5.6 percent of the time; blacks were the topic 4 percent of the time.

An NABJ study of 74 of the largest TV stations in America, released in September, found that staffing doesn’t match city demographics. Although they compose 35 percent of the U.S. population, people of color filled only 12 percent of broadcast newsroom management positions at the stations surveyed. In a nod to one of the bright lights, the NABJ study noted that Dallas-based Belo Corporation (which owns several TV stations, as well as The Dallas Morning News) was “closest to matching the diversity of the nation with 10 percent of its managers being of color.” Still, “its station in Charlotte has no diversity, and there is only one person of color in management at its station in New Orleans.”

The solutions? As always: Hire more minority journalists, overhaul the news menu, support the creation of minority news sites.

Clack says, “There’s a reason why minority groups will always need their own news sites. Mainstream media don’t have the knowledge or interest to cover those communities as thoroughly as they should.”

And, Clack adds: “I believe we will see more minority news websites such as The Root and theGrio.”

And now, some journalists of color have complained about the lack of minority representation at online news/social media sites. Citing a Pew Center study showing that blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as whites, some journalists say new media sites are succumbing to old media habits.

Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram assistant managing editor Jean Marie Brown addresses the gulf in an excellent article for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard called “Familiar Patterns of Minority Exclusion Follow Mainstream Media Online.” Her thesis: Don’t get lulled into believing that the democratic tendencies of new media will result in instant diversity.

“Mainstream online media are caught in the same loop that ensnared legacy outlets,” Brown writes. “Their view of minorities is limited… Rather than fostering understanding that might help us find common ground, mainstream online media maintain the divisive ‘us vs. them’ mentality that is evident in many of our contemporary conversations about race.”

A Tale of Two Editors

In September, two Texas editors announced they were stepping down—Fred Zipp at the Austin American-Statesman and Robert Rivard at the San Antonio Express-News. Rumors began to fly: They were tired of corporate types telling them what stories to run; they quit before they were forced out; they were “ink-stained” leftovers in a digital world; they refused to lay off more reporters.

“I have felt my passion for the job wane and decided to leave so that others can pick up the fight,” said Zipp in a story in the American-Statesman.

Rivard’s email to staff read: “I look forward to pursuing new opportunities in a new field.”

I asked both if they wanted to expand on how Texas editors who had guided their papers through tough storms and stories had moved on. I also asked each how he sees journalism in Texas, and what advice they have for young folks entering the field.

Zipp, who became managing editor in 2000 and editor in 2008, replied: “Thanks for the generous offer. I’m reluctant to adopt the role of wistful crank just yet, though, so I will pass. I’m confident whatever you are thinking is on target.”

Rivard, who became editor in 1997, simply said: “Ask me on or about Jan. 2.”

Whether you liked them or their newspapers, the two newspaper veterans were tasked with keeping their wounded publications on life support. And I would argue that you have to view their departures through the prism of the weird, often awful, history of journalism in Texas—and its future.

In the 1970s and part of the 1980s, the San Antonio Express-News was a laughingstock among seasoned journalists, molded by the absolute worst instincts of Rupert Murdoch. Under Murdoch’s ownership, the newspaper regularly featured pictures of local women in bikinis. There were bizarre contests, including one that involved readers delivering the tails of dead rats to the newspaper. There were aggressively insensitive stories, headlines and story promotions, including “Aliens In Desert Battle Over Urine,” about immigrants dying of thirst in the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

The newspaper barely covered the Latino and black communities on the east, west and south sides of the city. Emphasis skewed toward the “white north,” just as it did in Dallas, where The Dallas Morning News spent decades refusing to devote substantial coverage to the communities of color in South and West Dallas.

The American-Statesman never stooped as low as the Express-News when it came to lunatic sensationalism, but for good chunks of the 1970s and 1980s, it was an unambitious outpost for investigative news, and tone deaf to the grinding realities of black and Latino life. Like Texas Monthly on the statewide level, the American-Statesman sometimes wrote about its city in a self-congratulatory vein—more celebration, and fewer indictments of people in power.

Without question, the American-Statesman and the Express-News ultimately improved. Rivard, Zipp and others broadened coverage and enacted some technological advancements. And they continued moving their papers away from the temptations (celebration versus investigation) of the not-too-distant days of daily newspapering in Texas.

That said, there will always be debate about whether any modern editors in Texas ever went far enough. And there will always be debate about what readers really expected from their daily newspaper.

In the end, deciding what constitutes progressive coverage in an age of diminished resources and increased corporate intrusion is subjective. When I first subscribed to Rolling Stone, then an “underground” publication, it introduced a column called “Dope Notes,” a guide to what drugs were safe to buy on the streets of America. The Village Voice used to run articles that, to the crowd I ran with at Columbia University, were excellent blueprints for student revolution.

The real, lasting legacy of the two departing Texas editors might be defined by the revelation of any advertiser-friendly pressures they felt over the years from corporate bigwigs at Hearst and Cox Communications, which own the Express-News and American-Statesman, respectively.

What’s already certain is that with these departures, Texas is zooming away from a newspaper culture run by people with more ink than bytes in their veins. The resignations mark a paradigm shift. Journalists who were born in the digital age and are attuned to social media’s influence on the news will soon run Texas newsrooms.

That’s the real revolution at Texas newspapers, and the big question is whether the new editors will use their new tools to improve local journalism.

Until that’s determined, look for other top-level resignations to come in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston.

Somewhere, Molly Ivins is laughing at this season’s contradictory political coverage. News stories say one thing about Texas Gov. Rick Perry; blogs such as the conservative RedState often say the opposite. What’s a concerned citizen to do? Who and what should you believe when no one can agree on the facts?

I like to think of Ivins as a proto-blogger. Like today’s bloggers, she riffed off the news, adding extra takes and insights. But she did it with the reporting chops to nail down the facts. Ivins’ work was informed by fastidious research—her own and the work of her staffers (full disclosure, I hired her best researcher to work for me on several book projects.)

Ivins believed in what she called “informed subjectivity,” which was based on something called “reporting.” But she didn’t pander to a rigid journalistic notion of balance and objectivity. Ivins wouldn’t waste her time reporting lies—from the left or the right. Why give equal weight to the phonies and con artists?

Her reporting on Perry and Texas politics wasn’t disconnected from the facts; it was driven by the facts.

Today, “disconnected” is a big buzzword at places where the future of journalism gets parsed. Are readers disconnected from politics because they don’t know which version of the facts to believe? Are young people cynically disconnecting from the political process after seeing contradictory stories on partisan blogs and in biased mainstream media coverage?

The contradictions are showing themselves right now in the coverage of Perry’s presidential campaign. Thinly reported partisan blogs offer one version, thinly reported traditional media outlets offer another. The versions are often so disparate that they appear to be written about different people.

The Observer’s Forrest Wilder expertly pondered how he could see and hear one thing at a Houston religious rally convened by Perry in August while other reporters saw something else.

Scan the articles and commentary about Perry on Reason magazine’s “Hit and Run” blog. After reading the libertarian/conservative site, you might be convinced that Perry’s track record has been far less conservative than his rhetoric, which he’s softening by the day.

Check out RedState, where some bloggers say Perry is Conservative Lite and not as Tea Party-ish as he purports. They say Perry believes in raising taxes through the roof and supports Big Government intrusion into citizens’ private affairs—kind of like those Democratic Party demons.

Of course, the editorial divide isn’t always driven by old-fashioned partisan agendas, by liberal or conservative bias in the media. It’s driven by what readers want. The same people researching how “disconnected” readers are from the news are also studying how millions of Americans seek out news sites that reaffirm their existing worldviews.

They want their biases shored up. So say you have a feeling that the public art around Rockefeller Center is really a secret ode to communism—a mind-control plot to insert pinko ideology in public places. You can get your suspicion affirmed by listening to Glenn Beck.

In our age of information overload, with multiple websites and blogs claiming to offer “news,” rumors substitute for facts, and facts are subject to debate. We can’t have an informed citizenry—or a healthy democracy—if bloggers and mainstreamers don’t acknowledge or make a full-faith effort to report the facts. Left or right, their work should be grounded in the hard-to-achieve “informed subjectivity.”

Remixing Dubya

Rick Perry’s run for the White House is a stark reminder that not too long ago an identical media game plan was mapped out in Austin for then-Gov. Dubya:

Tout the Texas leader as the CEO, the man who runs a state like a buck-stops-here businessman.

Leverage national events against Texas themes so the candidate can claim to have solutions (“You want jobs? We got your jobs right here!”), all while suggesting that Congress and the White House are overspending idiots.

Cement the social conservative voting bloc.

And ignore sit-downs with tough-minded members of the media, opting instead for well-timed public appearances highlighted by unsubtle nods toward religion.

What’s obviously different today is that there are fewer and fewer dedicated national media resources to hold Perry to serious scrutiny. The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, to name two outlets, once jumped early and hard to lead the way with major, time-consuming and probably costly stories about presidential candidate George W. Bush and his military background.

But today the usual, aching reasons—dwindling money and staff—make drilling down on any candidate’s record much harder to do.

Meanwhile, as Perry lurches forward it would be good to remember how Bush’s own presidential media strategy evolved.

After Bush got his ass kicked by John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary, Karl Rove and the Texas insiders went into panic mode. A decision was made that Bush needed to devote his time to the hardcore Christian conservative base. Forget playing patty-cake with Texas or national media—and forget trying to convince anyone that Bush was a “compassionate conservative,” devoted to uniting, not dividing.

Bush turned his attention to “the base” in the next primary, in South Carolina. He infamously spoke at the evangelical Bob Jones University while, in the background, someone unleashed nasty anti-McCain e-mails suggesting the Arizona senator had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Bush won South Carolina and the strategy was affirmed: Preach to the social conservative choir, solidify that base, and deny the media deep access. 

That plan had its roots in master media manipulator Lee Atwater (who delivered George H.W. Bush to the White House, and who mentored Rove): Deride and ignore the media. Avoid pesky press conferences, interviews, Q&As and magazine profiles. Create base-flattering stump speeches disguised as “news events.”

So here we have Perry at Houston’s Reliant Stadium presiding over a prayer rally before 30,000 attendees and broadcast to 1,000 churches: “Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.”

Perry’s speechmaking skills are closer to Richard Burton than to Bush’s Elmer Fudd impression. But if Perry’s demeanor around some reporters is any clue, he seems to have every bit of Bush’s disdain for the media (a radio interviewer in West Texas said Bush called him an “asshole” in the 1970s; a national reporter said Bush cursed him as the reporter was dining with his wife and child in a Dallas restaurant in 1986; and in 2000, he called a New York Times reporter an “asshole”).

And Perry is clearly establishing the same “media” allies. Rush Limbaugh, who jump-started Bush’s campaign, is doing the same thing for Perry:

“He’s out there articulating the truth, he’s getting stupendous applause and yet, ‘Nah-nah-nah, can’t have Rick Perry. He’s from Texas. He’s too close to Bush. We don’t want anybody from Texas! Bush is from Texas … ’ This is the message from the elites, the inside-the-Beltway geniuses.”

Just as he did for Bush, Limbaugh is doing Perry’s media-bashing for him, yelling about how “the state-controlled media” is not happy with Perry.

As the campaign unfolds, watch Perry continue to avoid and dismiss the media.

Watch for him to pop up at more “news events” tied to social conservative themes—and see if the media really scrutinize who is funding and supporting those events.

Watch for Perry to continue aping Bush’s 2000 game plan.

And pray that the national media can do the reporting they should have done the last time a Texan ran for the White House.

Muckraking 2.0

The promise of small-staff and “citizen” journalism is coming to fruition in Texas—excellent, often unheralded, investigative sites are moving well beyond the partisan blather that defines other so-called “news venues.” There are dozens around the state. Some are incredibly hard to find. Some are surviving on bank accounts flatter than a gambler’s wallet. But though their journalists use affordable, cutting-edge technology, they haven’t lowered journalistic standards. Here are a couple examples.

Last year Patrick Brendel, 28, and Mary Tuma, 24, uncorked The Texas Independent. With backing from the nonpartisan American Independent Network, it has quickly become a vital “watchdog journalism” website. (Disclosure: Brendel was a student of mine at UT-Austin; Tuma also graduated with a degree in journalism at UT-Austin and is a former Observer intern.)

Brendel has a refreshingly old-fashioned ethos. “George Washington wrote, ‘There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.’ My own ‘pursuit of happiness’ is seeking after truth, and journalism happens to be my outlet,” he says.

Fox News apologists—hell-bent on finding liberal bogeymen in every closet—would probably howl that The Texas Independent has a liberal agenda. But if you spend time on the site, you can see it shines the light on uncovered and under-reported Texas stories.

The Texas Independent has been out front in examining the state’s most powerful Tea Party component, the King Street Patriots. “They are mounting a serious First Amendment challenge to Texas’ corporate campaign finance restrictions, and have lobbied the state Legislature on behalf of voter photo ID laws and special privileges for poll watchers. They’ve become arguably the premier Tea Party group in the state, nabbed Gov. Rick Perry as the keynote speaker for the grand opening of their new headquarters and hosted the first of several Tea Party-orchestrated U.S. Senate debates,” Brendel explains. “We’ve been lucky to have them on our radar.”

Meanwhile, after receiving Knight Foundation funding, Ken Martin, 71, hit the ground last year with his pinpoint examinations of local elected officials on his Austin Bulldog site. Martin, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, put in 30 years reporting and writing for several Texas publications, and now uses part of his Social Security check to keep his publication afloat. The Bulldog site says, “We’re small. We’re scrappy. We aren’t going to change the world, but we aim to make a difference in our little corner of it.”

Martin says he is proud of his work examining the Austin City Council’s possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which the county attorney is investigating. “The overarching goal in all of this is to drag the City of Austin into the sunshine of open government, and that’s very much still an ongoing project that unfortunately the city seems to be resisting in every way possible,” Martin says.

Brendel, Tuma and Martin are not driven by the preening vanity you see in some journalism circles, that chance to hang out with people in power. Something else seems at work. “I am most proud to be part of an organization that is not beholden to major corporate interests and works to represent the public and hold those in power accountable,” says Tuma.

There are several decades of age between Tuma and Martin. But both know that public-service journalism, perhaps especially in Texas, is a labor of love, long hours, meager pay . . . and, ‘hey, how are we going to pay the electric bill?’ Not many things have changed since Willie Morris, Kaye Northcott, Molly Ivins and Ronnie Dugger ran The Texas Observer. The powers-that-be are still arrogant and dismissive—and, as always, they’d rather spend time seducing and flattering the bigger news outlets.

So… why bother? Why bother filing those open records requests? Why be the lone reporter at the droning sub-committee hearing, or poring over deliberately hidden public documents?

“I have this radical idea that government ought to be open, transparent and operate completely in the public interest,” Martin says.

Online Insiders

The Texas Tribune is wrapping up its first rodeo of legislative coverage. It now has alliances with The New York Times and several Texas publications. But is it any good? A multimillion-dollar startup instantly heralded in national outlets (including its future ally, the Times) should be the subject of a 4,000-word analysis, not a 750-word column. What political figures does it write about more often? Who does it routinely not write about? Who funds it, and are those people written about? What issues does it tackle regularly? Which does it regularly ignore?

Until someone writes that analysis, here’s what I like about it:

It provides jobs for excellent journalists. If you don’t think that is a good thing, then join the far edge of the Tea Party, denounce Thomas Paine and redact the Constitution.

It provides a look into Texas politics and state agencies, with pure numbers, statistics and intensive databases done by Matt Stiles. Emily Ramshaw takes a hard look at health care coverage. Ross Ramsey dissects the state budget.

It fills the aching gap left by wounded news outlets that can’t afford to cover state politics. It has kept everyone—The Texas Observer and the daily newspapers’ remaining political reporters—on their toes. News competition is back in play. That is a good thing for democracy.

Here’s what’s not to like:

The Times reported early on that the Tribune was going to offer “the good-for-you, Brussels sprouts journalism—education financing, lobbying, bureaucratic priorities, civics and state government … a niche site with a very narrow focus.” It has delivered on that, and it’s also been constrained by it. There are drawbacks to the demands of providing instant online journalism aimed at insiders.

What the Tribune needs is consistent, long-ball narrative and multipart investigative projects. It needs the 5,000-word drill-downs like Sy Hersh does for The New Yorker. It needs the huge packages that win Pulitzer Prizes for ProPublica, for investigative work and public service.

Sam Freedman, a New York Times writer and journalism professor, says the best stories exist on a temporal and eternal axis. You invest your stories with a legacy value—with huge context and sweep—so the stories have a longer shelf life, so the echo chamber resounds until the plutocrats really pay attention and maybe even go to prison for a long, long time. Associated Press correspondent and former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson calls those the “WTF” stories, the ones that make readers go “What the fuck!” So far, it’s hard to point to a jaw-dropping WTF in the Tribune.

I took a very unscientific poll and called several editors, consultants, reporters and educators across the state. What startled me, and I have no precise explanation for it, was how many folks instantly went off the record when they wanted to criticize the Tribune.

They lauded the TT extensively, for sure, but their voices dipped down when they said they thought it was boring, too much inside-baseball, too busy-looking, or producing too few investigative stories. They wished the good reporters were unleashed to play to their talents. The reticence, I suspect, is partly based on jealousy and fear—that the Tribune has money, foot soldiers, and those connections to the Times. The number one criticism was that it is too insular, too focused on details and not enough on the Big Context.

Tribune co-founder Ramsey (who once hired me almost 25 years ago to write a book) defends his publication and essentially says the sum is greater than the parts: “It’s a constant balance between detail and context, for us and for everyone else who covers something that’s complex and/or insular. You can get lost in detail, but if you don’t pay attention to it, you can’t properly describe the big picture.”

The Tribune is coming of age during a particularly draconian legislative session that needs a special kind of numbers-crunching scrutiny. The question is, after the session is over and the oily agents of politics go home, will the Tribune chase them to the ends they deserve?

The Loss of Freedom

A major media player in Texas is up for grabs. Freedom Communications Inc. has been seeking bids on its assets. It owns 100 newspapers, including The Brownsville Herald, El Nuevo Herald, The McAllen Monitor, the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen and the Mid-Valley Town Crier in Weslaco. (By the time this column is published, new owners of Freedom’s assets might have emerged.) These South Texas newspapers are on the front lines of immigration, drug trafficking and border violence—not to mention chronic poverty, lingering racism, massive unemployment and environmental degradation.

In a downtrodden newspaper business, this border newspaper shift raises a thousand red flags:

Why the hell would anyone spend the money in the first place? What’s the end game? Most important, what does it mean for border residents and anyone else who looks to border papers for news from one of the most newsworthy regions in the nation?

The Freedom chain is not perfect, but I wonder what will come along to replace it. Freedom has openly advocated its libertarian principles, and it’s questionable whether the less-government-is-good-government editorials that often run in the Valley papers are wildly out of tune with a region that still has areas without running water. “They have to tow the libertarian line,” says Steve Taylor, a former Freedom reporter who runs the online Rio Grande Guardian. The Guardian has aggressively looked at the festering problems surrounding the colonias in the Valley.

Taylor, who knows the region as well as anyone, agrees it is massively difficult to cover—especially when newspapers have dwindling resources and fewer reporters. The papers do what they can, when they can. In the end, he believes the papers really don’t “do any in-depth investigations,” the kind that “force people out of office.”

Some activists in the Valley say it’s clear the papers already lack the resources to take on the hard issues. “The paper has gotten slimmer and slimmer as our social realities have gotten thicker and thicker,” says Mike Seifert, a former priest who helps lead the Equal Voice for America’s Families network, and who has been reading The Brownsville Herald for 15 years. “There are so many stories out there.”

My colleague at the University of Texas School of Journalism, professor Wanda Cash, has deep experience in Texas newspapers. She says the border papers do a good job with limited resources. “Olaf Frandsen (publisher of the Monitor) and Daniel Cavazos (publisher of the Herald), in particular, are outstanding newsmen who value good storytelling and share a deep commitment to serve their communities with truths that are not always pleasant,” she says.

As with other newspaper buyouts, it’s possible that a buyer could strip the papers to the bone. There are worrying signs. A couple of the interested buyers are private equity groups that have a history of starving newspapers, like Platinum Equity of Los Angeles, the MediaNews Group Inc., and Angelo, Gordon & Co.

Here is what the State of The News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism (2010), produced by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, said about Gordon and Platinum: “While the private equity owners are undoubtedly in the newspaper business motivated by a chance to make money rather than for public service, they appear to be betting that these distressed properties will bounce back after several years.”

Some media analysts have said that the private equity firms might be looking to use their new newspapers to launch advanced online ventures. Perhaps that is where the Valley papers are headed.

There’s a lot at stake. This is a part of America that desperately needs watchdogs. That needs investigative reporting. That cries out for the righteous indignation that can only be summoned by powerful reporting. If new owners emerge, they’re duty bound to pursue all of that. The people who live along the border deserve nothing less.

Failing Grades

State lawmakers are weighing a proposed 2012-2013 state budget that could impose draconian cuts on the state’s already piss-poor educational system. Schools, teachers, innovative programs—they are all in danger of being cut in the name of fiscal austerity. “This bill reflects the reality of the recession on Texas,” is how Rep. Jim Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie, put it when he uncorked the proposed budget.

The massive cutbacks were surely coming at almost every level of education—but it was almost as if reporters were surprised when they began examining the budget proposals coughed up by Pitts and others. The news reports had a breathless quality. The overarching sense was that “we didn’t know it was going to be this bad.”

Which begs a simple question: Why not?

Stripped to the bone, with fewer reporting boots on the ground, Texas news outlets made the usual mistake in the last several months before the legislative session. They concentrated on horse-race coverage of political campaigns, they focused on narrow “truth in advertising” analyses of political promises, and they were entranced by the top-of-the-ballot battle between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White.

Editors really needed to order reporters out of the air-conditioned corridors of power in Austin and hightail it into the heart of Texas. They needed to stop schmoozing with lobbyists and kingmakers in Austin and get to South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas. They needed to get to Bowie Elementary School in Abilene and Ramiro Barrera Middle School in Rio Grande City—to put a human face on the story that educators and parents were already forecasting firsthand.

Texas school districts and administrators have been operating on a wing and a prayer for years. The gap between the rich districts and the poor districts is ever-widening. Good teachers were already being cut, arts programs were in danger, and playgrounds were increasingly pockmarked. The budget crisis—the disconnect between tax revenue and educational spending—was apparent to many teachers and principals. They knew the numbers weren’t adding up. It’s one thing to scream for property tax cuts, but another to magically find the money to buy books, computers and basketball hoops.

Back when I slaved at The Dallas Morning News office in Austin that covers state government, I listened one day as the bureau chief announced: “Only one hundred people read our stories. And it’s the same one hundred people over and over again.”

He was referring to lobbyists, other Capitol reporters, lawmakers and other insiders who love bumping into each other along a small stretch of Congress Avenue. He was admitting that there wasn’t enough deep, contextual, immersion reporting. No human-interest reporting. The stories were written and reported in a dutiful way that reflected bureaucratic realities—but not in any passionate, anecdotal way that reflected the reality of life. Where was the real Texas?

The News still sends several reporters into the state Capitol. The Texas Tribune does the same. They are two of the engines of daily state government coverage, and they are using every form of multimedia to show what is unfolding under the Big Tent. Still, the reporting on education cuts seems like desperate Monday morning quarterbacking mixed with the exploration of triage plans. Do we tap the Rainy Day Fund, is it possible to raise taxes, do we try some fiscal alchemy?

These times require media outlets to pick their battles carefully, and education is always under-reported. It has everything to do with the futures of millions of children. Maybe, if the students’ realities had been chronicled vividly, today’s education news wouldn’t be so breathless.

And maybe, if the media had held an accurate mirror to the embattled educational system in Texas, we wouldn’t be in this crisis.

News for Sale

In the next few weeks, The Dallas Morning News will begin charging for online news. It’s a daring attempt to reinvent the news business. The old formula that used to drive newspapers—85 percent of a paper’s revenue was from advertising, 15 percent was from circulation—is dead. Digital advertising is not replacing the money that newspapers have lost on print advertising and subscriptions. The News and other newspapers across the state have resorted to massive layoffs, salary freezes and pullbacks in coverage to keep driving corporate profits.

Through it all, the Dallas newspaper kept its fine investigative unit intact. It still routinely does some of the most important work in the state—whether it’s drilling down on the Texas Youth Commission or looking for malfeasance inside the Dallas Independent School District.

On Feb. 15, the Dallas paper will become one of the only large American newspapers to try to reverse what industry analysts call “the original sin”—giving away original reporting online. Here’s how publisher Jim Moroney framed the decision to charge on KRLD radio in Dallas: “I think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens with some of the early companies that go out there, like us and The New York Times. We’re going to give you more value.”

On Jan. 1, the paper raised its monthly print subscription cost to $34 from $30. In February, print subscribers will also get the digital News and so-called “subscriber content” on dallasnews.com. There are iPad and iPhone apps for the service, as well. There are tiered deals for digital-only subscribers. Here’s how the News framed “subscriber content” in its own story about the deal: “Subscriber content will include proprietary news and information produced by The News. Headlines, breaking news, most blogs, obituaries, classifieds and nonproprietary content such as syndicated wire stories will remain free.”

If the experiment in Dallas works, other dominos will fall. Jeff Cohen, editor of the Houston Chronicle, once told me that The Dallas Morning News was his gold standard. Cohen and editors around the state (hell, the nation) are watching the News try to pull off this transition. So we’re back to square one in the art-versus-commerce debate and what might be driving decisions in Dallas: corporate profits.

The plan to charge online readers might make the paper more money. There’s no doubt that the News will be limiting how many readers see the most important investigative stories. That raises the question of whether the News is playing Texas Hold ‘Em with its civic obligation—just as the state is facing massive budget cuts that will breed more poverty, racism and white-collar crime.

Now the paper wants to charge for that proprietary investigative work online. If people choose not to pay, will there be enough readers to spark the collective indignation necessary to change anything? Is the paper about to abandon its civic mission by deliberately shrinking its audience?

”We hope we are doing our job,” Moroney told the radio reporter in Dallas. A lingering argument has been that Big Media’s “job” is to make a living, a profit, by telling the truth. Now, as the last remnants of the Big Newspaper Monopoly cascade down, it’s time to re-examine the priorities of that “job.” If the News and other traditional enterprises have to reinvent themselves, then they have to examine their job description, their mission, their day-to-day checklists.

The stakes are high for the News and journalism in general. So the reporters up in Dallas must rededicate themselves to producing even more investigative journalism that serves the public’s right to know. The News has to do its edgiest, bravest work, ever, in this new pay-for-content dynamic. It has to prove that unassailable public service journalism—the kind that makes readers howl “What The Fuck!?”—will make money for Big Media’s online outlets.

Moroney says the paper will give readers “more value.” He needs to think about making civic values the driving engine for corporate profits.

Almost a century ago, the News famously took a stand against the KKK’s entrenched control of the city. Circulation initially suffered, but the paper emerged stronger than ever as the KKK’s overt influence and anti-News smear campaign eroded. That kind of editorial commitment will be more important than ever.