Emmy Award-winning journalist Bob Schieffer sees a “a real crisis in journalism right now,” and that is the decline of local community coverage.

Schieffer spoke to the Bulletin’s sister paper, the New Canaan Advertiser, in advance of his visit to New Canaan for an unscripted, public conversation with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson on May 15.

Schieffer, a 24-year host of CBS News’ Face The Nation and the author of the 2017 book Overload — Finding the truth in today’s deluge of news, pointed out that 120 newspapers in the country have closed in the past 12 years, which he says shows what we’ve lost in local journalism.

Looking back on the research about the changing worlds of media and journalism that he revealed in Overload, Schieffer said during a phone conversation, “I knew we were in a big change, but I did not realize how profound it was, and what an impact it was having, especially on local journalism.”

His concern is for the wellbeing of the country. “At the local level if we don’t have reliable news agencies, whether newspapers or whatever they are, that people can trust and believe in, we will have corruption at a level we have never seen,” Schieffer said.

“At all levels of society,” he continued, “if people don’t have a good understanding of what is going on, that is a national security problem.”

“The important thing to remember,” Schieffer said, “is we have to give people independently gathered information that they can compare to the government’s version of events; and then people will figure out what to do about it.”

“It’s what the founders wanted us to do. … If we do it well we’re performing a real public service.”

Another one of the values of local journalism, Schieffer agreed, is providing a pulse of the country’s smaller communities for the national news gatherers. He said that a decline in local journalism may be part of the reason that national news organizations missed the reality that Donald Trump had a strong following during the 2016 presidential campaign in parts of the country away from Washington, New York and Los Angeles.
The business
When asked about the difficult business model of trying to thoroughly cover a community with smaller digital advertising revenue replacing more profitable print advertising revenue, Schieffer acknowledged, “The business model is not yet there.”

At the national level, however, the Washington Post, under the ownership of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has figured out the business model, the CBS newsman said. He said the Post has been profitable the past two years and hired 60 reporters.

Schieffer said he learned from Bezos something that might carry over to local journalism as well: Worry about the customer and focus on the product.

In the same line of thinking Schieffer also cited his current boss at CBS News, David Rhodes, as saying if you have information that someone needs to know about, “You can find a way to get a rent for that.”

Whether local or national, Schieffer says to stay focused on these questions: “What do we need to be telling people? What do they need to know? Informed knowledge of who to vote for? Or, are the local police doing what they ought to be doing?”

“You gotta find a way to make a better product, is what I am saying,” he said.
Clickbait or town hall
Schieffer was asked about another conundrum faced by editors and publishers in this digital age: that is, whether to entice readers with content they might find more enticing to click on, or to provide information about the inner workings of town hall in order to keep the government leaders honest.

This debate is covered in Overload with one new media expert saying the content must be relevant to younger readers’ lives, and a contrasting media expert saying it is the journalists’ job to tell the readers what is important.

Schieffer says his experience in newspapers and television shows you can do both.

“You’ve got to get them into the tent before you tell them what you think they need to know,” Schieffer said. You get them into the tent in different ways, he said, and he used the New York Times and its crossword puzzles as an example.

Regarding the local journalism business model, Schieffer told the Advertiser, “You’ll figure it out.”

He signed off from the telephone interview saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s the Lord’s work, local newspapers.”