Some of America’s most prominent newspapers have seen declines in their ad revenue and circulation-followed, predictably, by shrinking staffs. The San Jose Mercury News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and even The Washington Post and The New York Times have winnowed their newsrooms through layoffs and buyouts.
In Texas, nearly every major mainstream news organization is contracting. The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News cut their staffs in fall 2007, slicing positions from the dwindling Capitol press corps in Austin (the papers had merged their Austin bureaus in 2006). The television news stations in Dallas and Houston have all closed their Austin bureaus. They drive their news vans to the Capitol to film the first and last days of the Texas Legislature’s 140-day sessions, but disappear while lawmakers actually craft the bills that will profoundly affect the lives of their viewers.
Perhaps no Texas media outlet has fallen as far as The Dallas Morning News. It was once one of the most-respected newspapers in the country. From 1986 to 1994, the Morning News won six Pulitzer Prizes. Since 2004, the paper has slashed more than 200 journalists-about 30 percent of its editorial staff, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. The paper began closing bureaus around the nation and the world. It now has but one foreign bureau-in Mexico City. (For those inclined to count Oklahoma as a foreign country, the paper also shuttered its Oklahoma City bureau.) The Morning News’ Washington, D.C., bureau shrank from 11 reporters to two. The Morning News no longer has any reporters stationed in Houston, just as the Houston Chronicle no longer has reporters in Dallas.
What has grown is the heckling class. Opinion journalism is easy and cheap, and today pundits predominate. They populate cable television and fill the blogosphere. While the Internet has delivered a modicum of grassroots, citizen journalism, blogs don’t-with a few notable exceptions-engage in major investigative reporting.
Back in 1954, when Frankie Randolph and Ronnie Dugger started The Texas Observer, journalism in Texas was on hard times as well. The all-male Austin press corps and lobbyists hunted, fished, and boozed together. Not surprisingly, they carefully guarded each other’s perks. Civil rights violations and political corruption rarely made it into newspapers. Then, along came Dugger with the idea that not only was abuse of power news, it was exactly what reporters should focus on. As he wrote in our first issue, “… never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.”
Today, we feel the same way about investigative journalism and political reporting. Investigative journalism is an expensive proposition. It’s often slow, tedious work that requires the investment of staff time and money. For every major exposÃ©, reporters will just as often spend time chasing down tips that don’t pan out. Political reporting that delves into complex policies and strips away the obfuscations of lawmakers and special interests is challenging work. It takes effort and institutional knowledge. And we love to do it.
The Observer breaks big stories and provides political news coverage no other publication can or will, with precious few resources except pluck, talent, and determination. We welcome to the scene ProPublica, a recent nonprofit investigative journalism startup, as a sign of the need the Observer has long tried to fill. Some people might say the survival of a thriving, muckraking, investigative magazine like the Observer is a miracle. We credit the passion and commitment of our readers and contributors.
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