John Nichols: Crisis in journalism is a crisis for democracy

By: - July 19, 2019 7:00 am
John Nichols speaking at a podium

John Nichols (Photo by Joe Mabel CC-sa/2.0)

There is no more ardent champion of Wisconsin’s progressive tradition than John Nichols, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times and the author of many books, including “The Genius of Impeachment,” “The Death and Life of American Journalism” (with Robert McChesney) and “The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper’s Century Long Fight for Justice and for Peace” (with Dave Zweifel). 

Nichols became the ebullient face of the uprising against then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 (and wrote a book about it, “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest from Madison to Wall Street”). He delivered fiery speeches to giant crowds gathered outside the Capitol building in Madison, and appeared countless times on national television, even bringing his friend Ed Schultz to town to set up a huge MSNBC stage in front of the Capitol. 

From his earliest years, Nichols was a journalist. He started writing for the daily newspaper in Union Grove, Wisconsin, when he was 11 years old. When I first met him, in the early 1990s, he was the national correspondent for newspapers in both Toledo and Pittsburgh. I remember catching up with him at the Democratic Convention in 1996, where he was busy filing more than 50 stories in the space of a week. 

Despite his frenetic work schedule, Nichols is, as anyone who lives in Madison can attest, always ready to stop and chat. He is a fixture at the local farmer’s market, where he can be found greeting thousands of his closest friends with a cheerful “Hey, comrade!” on any given Saturday. He produced many of his books at Ancora coffee shop in downtown Madison, steps away from the Wisconsin Examiner’s new office. 

Nichols, together with his writing partner Robert McChesney, has thought as deeply as anyone in America about the crisis in journalism, as well as in our democracy, and about how the two are related. 

I caught up with him at his home in Madison to talk about what we are trying to do here at the Examiner. As usual, he was happy to share his thoughts.

RUTH CONNIFF: You wrote a book about journalism in Wisconsin. What’s your sense of where it stands today?

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s in a bad way. There’s a void, a gap that we’ll talk about in a moment. You and your colleagues will help to fill it, which is vital for renewing and sustaining Wisconsin democracy. But let’s start by putting things in perspective.

The editor I wrote about with my friend and colleague Dave Zweifel was William T. Evjue, the founder of The Capital Times who said, “Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well.” There were not enough truth tellers in Evjue’s time. Things were never perfect. But there are even fewer journalists who are employed as truth tellers today.

Newspapers have closed across the state — including the weekly paper in Union Grove that I started writing for at the age of 11. Radio stations have eliminated local news operations, which has had a devastating impact in small towns where they were essential parts of local life — broadcasting the high school football games and school board meetings and the reports of births and deaths. Television stations have become increasingly homogenized, with packaged reports that are designed to get ratings rather than to provide coverage of the towns, villages and cities where we live. They overwhelm us with weather reporting but never get around to the steady coverage of city councils and county boards and state government that people have to have if they are going to govern their own lives.

We’ve seen wave after wave of consolidations and mergers and, above all, cuts to staffing in newsrooms. Over the past decade, according to the Pew researchers, we have lost a quarter of newsroom jobs nationwide. And I would submit that Wisconsin, a state that historically benefitted from a great deal of diverse and contentious journalism, has seen the worst of it. These losses are across the board: in print, broadcast and online. Amusingly, you still hear people suggest that online media will fill the void. But there is scant evidence that this will be the case. In fact, when we studied the numbers a few years ago we found that, for every 10 job losses in traditional newsrooms, there was at best one hire in an online newsroom. Anyone who has been paying attention has seen the reports that online media outlets have been struggling over the past few years with many of the same challenges as so-called “legacy” media. The challenge is an economic one, and it cuts across media platforms.

RC: You believe that a cornerstone of democracy is being weakened. Is that an urgent moment — especially in states such as Wisconsin?

JN: Absolutely. Advertising no longer sustains newsrooms in the way that it once did, and that means that we’re beginning to see news deserts: communities, whole regions, that are simply not being covered in any real sense. While the places where the wealthy cluster may still be covered, vast stretches of urban and rural America are now neglected by major media outlets. By some estimates, as many as 1 in 5 Americans now live in news deserts, and the problem is rapidly growing worse.

Cuts in the coverage of low-income and working-class communities are a huge issue. They make it harder to tackle inequality, to identify environmental racism, to preserve services and to maintain robust democracy. And the damage is compounded by cuts in statehouse coverage.

Unfortunately, when newspapers and broadcast outlets make newsroom cuts, reporting on state capitals and state courts is invariably reduced. That compounds the crisis because people know less about how to respond to the challenges. An overemphasis on coverage of Washington makes people think that answers come from the federal government when, in reality, people have far more ability to influence state government.

The problem is that Wisconsinites and people across the country are getting less statehouse news. The Pew folks found that, over a roughly 10-year period concluding in 2014, the number of statehouse reporters nationwide collapsed by 35 percent. Every indication is that the decline has accelerated since then. There’s a recent study out of Oregon that shows the number of statehouse reporters has declined by two-thirds since 2005. And no one would suggest that the picture in Wisconsin is much better.

Wisconsin State Capitol

RC: Yet, statehouse coverage remains important.

JN: Vitally important. The states are still what Robert M. La Follette and Louis Brandeis understood them to be: our laboratories of democracy. The states are where great reforms are initiated, as Wisconsinites know. It’s not just that this state led the way on the issues that mattered at the start of the last century: progressive taxation, unemployment compensation, primary elections to break the power of the political bosses. This is the state that led on conservation and environmental protection in the 1960s and 1970s, on LGBTQ rights in the 1980s, on state-based responses to the health-care crisis such as Badgercare and FamilyCare.

Journalists who want to see where new ideas are coming from have historically looked to progressive states such as Wisconsin and Oregon because these are the places where the future is written. It is very rare that policy innovations come from Washington. In part that is because the special interests that defend a corrupt status quo concentrate their resources on electing a Congress that will serve their interests. No matter what party is in charge in DC, there is pressure from bankers and CEOs and their lobbyists for deregulation and tax cuts. The Republicans have tended in recent decades to be more inclined to be subservient to corporate interests than the Democrats, but remember that Bill Clinton championed the disastrous deregulation of Wall Street in the late 1990s and that Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bailout of the banks in 2008. So Washington is a mess. At best, there’s a little more hope in the states.

RC: But that hasn’t really been the case in Wisconsin in recent years

JN: Unfortunately, the same forces that seek to influence decisions in DC also spend money on electioneering and lobbying in the states — as Wisconsin saw when the Koch brothers and their allies poured money into electing Scott Walker and Republican majorities in the legislature. Walker’s governorship was a time of retrenchment for Wisconsin. Instead of innovating, Wisconsin’s elected leaders literally borrowed templates from right-wing “think tanks” in Washington rather than listening to Wisconsinites. We need journalism to expose this dumbing down and bartering off of policy making.

There are still some fine reporters covering the Capitol here. I’m associated with The Capital Times, Wisconsin’s historic progressive newspaper, and I’m very proud of the fact that we maintain serious investigative reporting and a good deal of statehouse coverage — as well as an aggressive editorial page. The Associated Press and Wisconsin Public Radio still provide some excellent coverage. The [Wisconsin] State Journal makes an effort, as does the [Milwaukee] Journal Sentinel — especially Dan Bice. I also give high marks to Isthmus, the Center for Media and Democracy and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. But we would be lying to ourselves if we imagined that there is sufficient day-to-day coverage of the legislature, state agencies and the state courts.

RC: How big a gap is there?

JN: An overwhelming one. As I said, we have some fine people making an effort to cover politics and policy in Wisconsin. But it would be absurd, and shameful, to suggest that there are enough reporters on the beat. There simply are not.

One of the big challenges is this: We have media outlets that do important investigations and feature stories. The problem is that traditional beat coverage just isn’t happening. Let me give you an example: It has been devastating for Wisconsin that there have not been teams of reporters covering the Foxconn debacle and the mess with WEDC [the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation]  and what passes for economic development in Wisconsin. This is a full-on, clown-car parade. National publications have done tons of exposes regarding Foxconn yet many Wisconsinites are still under the illusion that this was a credible economic development deal. It never was credible, and it never would have gotten as far as it did if there was serious and sufficient day-in, day-out coverage.

Of course, that’s just the beginning of the void. In a state of 5.8 million people, we really should have multiple reporters from multiple publications and broadcast outlets covering not just the governor and the legislature, but the day-to-day workings of state agencies such as the Department of Revenue, the Department of Transportation and, of course, the Department of Corrections. There has been some fine reporting on some egregious circumstances for incarcerated young people, but understand this: If we had consistent beat reporting on the criminal justice system, we would be see dramatically more progress toward the criminal justice reforms that are so urgent.

The Supreme Court and the state appellate courts should be covered by reporters from different publications with different perspectives — and there should be several reporters covering the Supreme Court elections beat. Supreme Court elections are different from elections for other state posts — different rules, different streams of money, different ethical concerns and impacts. Yet, they tend to be covered as standard political campaigns. That feeds into a cynicism regarding the courts and, frankly, empowers those who would corrupt the courts by politicizing them.

But it’s not just about the institutions. It’s about the issues — profound issues that are changing Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is experiencing a farm crisis. This state should have reporters covering the state Department of Agriculture and the intersection of its operations and those of the federal Department of Agriculture, Trump’s tariff machinations and all the related issues. This is “America’s Dairyland,” but farm and rural issues tend to be treated as an afterthought by most media.

RC: What’s the most serious gap in coverage?

JN: I’d say the corruption crisis. Our political campaigns are guided by out-of-state donors and consultants, not candidates and voters. Our legislative chambers are gerrymandered. Our court races are politicized in ways that are dramatically at odds with how they were designed to be run. And, mark my words, the 2021 contest for state Superintendent of Public Instruction will be a brutal battle that is slathered in outside money.

We need a lot more journalism. Fast!

RC: That’s what we’re trying to do.

JN: Good. Every expansion in the pool of journalists covering Wisconsin is an exciting prospect. And it becomes more exciting because of the people involved — experienced men and women who understand the state and the issues. What you and your colleagues are proposing to do is important. It begins to fill the void. I’m afraid the key word is “begins.” There will still be a void, but putting more reporters on the beat matters now more than ever. Ultimately, we have to identify new revenue models, new structures. The fight for the future of journalism in Wisconsin and nationally — indeed, internationally — is a critical one. What we want is more journalism and, frankly, more competition, with lots of different beats and lots of different perspectives. The point isn’t just the journalism. It’s the democracy, because Evjue’s equation is still the right one: “Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well.”​


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.