David Simon (you might remember him as the creator of The Wire…) writes about the importance of beat reporting in understanding stories, and why Baltimore's murder statistics are deeply flawed (and dangerous).
This is one of the reasons I've gotten out of the tech press business, it applies even moreso to general news:
No, the reason I am able to tell you this story is not because I am now an amateur or because I have a blog. It is, above all, because a news organization paid me for years on end to cover the same approximate beat on a full-time basis. For the first three years or so, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I wrote a lot — more than 300 bylines in one year alone — but much of it was credulous and reactive, leavened only by what police and prosecutors told me; none of it carried much of the nuance or understanding required to actually acquire any deeper truth. That stuff only began showing up after I’d had some years of learning the game, of rummaging documents, of learning which sources to trust. I did all of that not as an amateur, and not as a hobby. I did it for 50 or 60 hours a week because the Baltimore Sun had a sufficient revenue stream to pay me a living wage and benefits so that I could take a mortgage and raise a family and show up to do the work on a daily basis. I didn’t do it because I loved cops or hated cops, or loved or hated criminals or lawyers or bureaucrats. I didn’t have any other agenda than the news report itself. The sinecure of professional prose journalism, which is now threatened by a new economic model, was the only place in my city where resources were once allocated for an independent, unaligned voice to spend years in the bowels of a civic institution — long enough that I began to understand what a statistic might represent, and what it might not represent.
When I did the job, there were at least half a dozen different police reporters like me working at the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun. We covered some ground. Today, there are two such creatures struggling to keep up, not only with the daily headlines, but with the kind of institutional reporting that is required for a story like this one to be not only discovered, but understood in all of its obscure, but essential back-and-forth. This is no reflection on those guys: In a newsroom with more empty desks every month, they are buried by the workload.
The idea that we're getting adequate coverage from today's press is laughable. I see it day in and day out when watching the tech press. I see how stories are basically lifted from press releases and blogs, and I know why bloggers are doing it. The job is no longer one of doing quality reporting, it's all about quantity and page views. It's all about churning out a ton of content hoping that something sticks and that your competitors don't "scoop" you or cover something you didn't. It's not at all about insight or getting the real story.
I wish I'd done a beat reporting job out of college, before they all went away. Covering tech for years was fun, but I wish I'd worked on real news for a few years. (Sorry, covering Apple's latest gadget isn't real news, no matter how much we might wish it so.)
Go read the rest of "Dirt Under the Rug," it's well worth it. I just wish I had a solution.