A question for every reporter: Why are you there?

Professor Jeff Jarvis wrote a marvelous post recently questioning why reporters were in Tampa covering the Republican National Convention. The point was: What work are reporters doing there that justifies the expense of sending them there rather than using that money elsewhere in the newsroom?

“We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN …Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year. So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?”

(I’d point the question more toward editors, who make the coverage decisions, rather than reporters. A good reporter will always want to be near the big story. It’s the editors who make the decision, not reporters).

This post came out the same week that the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News Tribune announced that they would not be sending their Mariners beat writers on the road the remainder of the season. “Like all news organizations, we try to get the biggest bang for our limited dollars,” Times editor Don Shelton wrote Deadspin in an email.

As a former beat writer, of course I think beat writers should attend as many games as possible. Watching on TV or online isn’t the same. You’re at the mercy of the TV director, not your own eyes. Yes, the press conference may be streamed. But if you’re not there, you forfeit your ability to ask questions, which is kind of what we do for a living. Our main advantage as newspapers/news organizations is being where the fans are not, using all of our senses to find the story. Barry Petchesky writes it best:

“The beat guy’s job is different. He’s in the locker room every day, making friends, learning secrets and gaining trust. He’s tipping off his paper’s other reporters and columnists to the real juicy stuff, the stuff he can’t write himself without poisoning his relationships. He’s there to notice trends from at-bat to at-bat, game to game, month-to-month. All the rewritten wire copy in the world isn’t going to replace someone whose informed context gives a gamer meaning.”

But Professor Jarvis’ question is always worth asking.

Why are you there?

Why are you covering this game? Why are you making that road trip? Why are you sending your columnist to Augusta, to the Super Bowl, to the Olympics?

Is doing so in the best interest of the readers? Is your writer/reporter really giving providing the kind of content that relies on all of their senses? Is he or she giving your readers a story that they can’t get anywhere else? Or are they doing the kind of commentary / writing / reporting that could be done by anyone watching the game on an HD TV?

It’s hard to ask those questions. But this is a time when we in the media have to ask hard questions of ourselves? We can’t pretend it’s 1983 or 1997 any more. Every decision we make, every story we write, every choice we make, we have to keep our readers’ best interests in mind. We have to ask ourselves the question Professor Jarvis asked reporters at the RNC.

Why are you there?

Image Credit: Deadspin

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