Roberts: Public faces ‘information crisis’|Former editor laments decline in newspapers, ‘statehouse’ coverage

Published 2:33 am Friday, June 19, 2009

Contributing Editor

BATH — The declining number of newspapers and newspapers reducing their coverage of Capitol Hill and the nation’s statehouses bodes ill for the American public, said Bath resident Gene Roberts.
Roberts should know. He’s been either a reporter or an editor at such newspapers as The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the News-Argus in Goldsboro. He received a Pulitzer Prize for history for his book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.” He co-wrote the book with Hank Klibanoff.
Roberts, speaking at the annual meeting of Friends of Bath Library on Thursday, told an audience of about 80 people that Americans “are no longer getting the detailed coverage from journalism we were once getting.” He described the loss of newspapers and the decreased emphasis on reporting about what’s happening in the halls of government — at any level — as an “unraveling” of the fabric that joins journalists with the public.
The more information people have, the better they are able to make decisions that affect their lives, he said.
“What a democratic society does not know, it cannot act upon,” Roberts said.
The nation is experiencing an “information crisis,” said Roberts, who also lives in New York.
In statehouses where newspapers once had reporters in double-digit numbers, they now have half those numbers, even less in some instances, Robert said. Information those reporters gleaned from the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government kept the taxpayers and voters informed about how their legislators were affecting their lives, he said. With that information, voters knew whether the people they voted for were looking out for their interests, Roberts said.
As for people turning to the Internet to get news, Roberts said, they must realize that the Internet is mostly an aggregate of news from other sources, mainly newspapers. Roberts also said there may come a day when fiscal conditions result in nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations buy and run troubled newspapers.
Roberts said the public is “headed into an uncertain future for the news we need to sustain our democracy.”
Roberts went back to his early days as a journalist for an example of how important information is to people. While working for the News-Argus, Roberts was assigned to write about farming.
“I wrote about whatever was on the farmers’ minds,” Roberts recalled.
As much information about farming he provided, farmers always wanted more, he said.
“They wanted to hear every detail because their lives and their livelihoods depended on it,” Roberts said.