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Newspapers and Democracy

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Twenty years ago, journalists who covered national politics knew that they could usually go into an area and find one reporter who really understood his region.

For many years, Chad Selweski, the politics writer and columnist at the Macomb Daily, was that guy in his county, and that’s more important than it might sound.

For some years, largely blue-collar Macomb was seen as the national symbol of why Democrats were losing presidential elections.

Once, it was the most Democratic suburban county in the nation. But in 1980, Macomb voters were among the millions who turned to embrace Ronald Reagan – hence, Reagan Democrats.

For decades after that, presidential hopefuls of both parties came courting Macomb. And when the national media wanted to know what was happening there, they called Chad Selweski.

I read him for years, both his straight reporting and his columns, and I found his work to be what his blog proclaims: “Politics from a pragmatic, centrist point of view – not far left or far right.” So it was jarring this month when I read that Selweski had abruptly quit working for the Macomb Daily after thirty years.

He posted on Facebook, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” I was sad, but not surprised. In recent years, the Macomb Daily, like its counterpart the Oakland Press, has been misused and stripped by a succession of greedy absentee owners.

Yesterday, I talked to Selweski, who is now trying to make a living from his blog, Politically Speaking. What he told me was much the same as I have heard from other frustrated reporters.

For one thing, they no longer feel what they do is very much valued by their bosses and their owners. What seems to matter most these days is not finding great stories and crucial information.

What seems to matter more is the ability to constantly deliver a stream of drivel over as many new media fads or “platforms” as possible. That may be a great way to cover a dog show. But nobody can cover serious news that way.

Just flash back to Watergate, and imagine Bob Woodward trying to video Deep Throat in the parking garage while trying to simultaneously tweet about it.

Reporting news is hard, meticulous and stressful work, especially on deadline. Nor is it well rewarded. Reporters at the Macomb Daily make between $40 and $45 thousand a year.

That’s fewer dollars than they were making in 2001. By the way, $45,000 back then, thanks to inflation, is less than $34,000 today.

Nobody goes into journalism to get rich. But it used to be possible to make a living at it, and it is vitally necessary for democracy and society. News aggregators like Google discover no news themselves. They merely collect it from a dwindling stream of what they call “legacy media,” primarily newspapers.

Selewski may land on his feet. But journalism has lost tens of thousands like him. On the internet, we can get plenty of Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian news.

But who is keeping an eye on the city councils, county commissioners and school boards? Long ago, Plato asked the key question: Who will watch our guardians?

Making sure the answer isn’t nobody is what journalism is for.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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