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Virginia’s garbage fire: Here is why the decline of local journalism is a national disaster

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There’s much that’s astonishing about the enormous scandal consuming Virginia politics right now, in which the Democratic governor and both of the Democrats behind him in line of succession are embroiled in what may be career-ending scandals. Blackface photos, sexual assault allegations, the threat that Gov. Ralph Northam might moonwalk in public: It’s by turns terrifying and ridiculous. But perhaps the most astonishing part, for most people involved or watching from afar, is this: How it can possibly be that all three of these Democratic elected officials — the top three in a middle-sized state right next to the nation’s capital — are confronting these scandals all at once?

This article firat appeared in Salon.

Well, experts in journalism say, buckle up, because things are likely to get worse. The Virginia scandal is a reflection of a larger trend where politics will be driven more and more by revelations, gotcha moments and resulting scandals. The decline in robust, in-depth journalism, particularly on the local level — coupled with the rise of social media and well-funded partisan opposition research — is creating an atmosphere where political scandals, legitimate or not, will increasingly dominate politics and media.

“You have this degradation of resources in local journalism, which has been going on for a while now,” said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is currently offering a fellowship for local investigative journalism. “You also have this counterpart, which is that it’s easier than before for opposition researchers on all sides to dig up dirt of this sort.”

The decline in local journalism means that politicians in the early stages of their careers, when they’re running for school board or city council, “are not getting anything like the sort of attention they would have gotten when there was a reporter whose full time job” was to cover such institutions or such elections, Benton said.

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Philip Napoli, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, added that this trend has coincided with another, “the rise of social media and the ways that political candidates are able to communicate with their constituencies directly” and present a version of themselves that’s more to their own liking.

The result is that politicians simply don’t get the vetting they might once have received as they climb the career ladder from smaller offices to statewide and even national offices. Red flags that might have been noticed before a politician reached a position of significant power get overlooked, because local papers simply don’t have the resources to catch them.

That doesn’t mean such skeletons will remain in the closet forever. As both Napoli and Benton pointed out, the decline in local journalism has accompanied a corresponding rise in partisan blogging and well-funded opposition research, conducted by those with a strong incentive to dig for dirt — especially once a politician has risen to major office.

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In fact, one could argue that the decline of local journalism, which tended to focus more on facts and policy issues, has created a vacuum that’s being filled by websites driven by an overtly political agenda and, in many cases, a loose relationship with the facts.


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