News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Double-think and double-talk in the news business

In most businesses, a promotion to a management position is considered a reward for competent, dependable work.  That custom is questionable in the newspaper business.  When a longtime beat reporter reaches a certain age, the hustle and bustle for an effectual newspaper gets draining, and it seems like the reporter's knowledge and experience can be utilized to great advantage at an editor's desk.  That is true.  Experienced, accomplished reporters understand news gathering and reporting in ways that that make them excellent in directing and supporting a news staff that works under them.  The problem is the loss of established news contacts, the rapport that has been cultivated with them,  and access to sources.  

I think of the case of Jim N.  who had been the main city hall and police reporter for many years and then was moved to the county government and courthouse.  He came to the newspaper after covering the city hall beat in another state when his predecessor, JT, at the newspaper I worked for became the managing editor.  He received a great deal of help from JT in getting to know the local routines,  the sources, and advice on interacting with the sources.  Jim was promoted to city editor, and the editor and publisher were faced with replacing him.  Jim said that even with all the help from JT,  it took years  for him to develop the contacts and ways of treating them to keep abreast of what was going on.  Every beat reporter has to develop his or her own productive relationships and rapport with the sources they meet every day on the job.  Such matters are not passed along with the job. And that is why promoting an established reporter off the beat is such a loss to a news organization.  Jim N. took his replacement around and introduced him to all his sources, but that did not mean that they would show the same kind of cooperation that Jim N. had established with them.  

South Dakota newspapers have "laid off" the premier reporter on the state government beat.  In July, the Aberdeen American News announced that it was letting go its Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Mercer along with six other newspaper employees.  Executive editor J. J. Perry explained:

Bob Mercer’s situation is a little different. He is based in Pierre, and his work is sold by our company to other news outlets in South Dakota. Those subscriptions helped offset some of the cost, but not enough. 
Rather than an immediate layoff, the Capitol Bureau in Pierre will remain open through the end of September. That will give our member papers enough time to decide how to proceed with their coverage, including of our new governor and the legislative session that opens in January. 

My deep hope is that one of the other subscriber newspapers can pick up the Capitol Bureau position, and we can subscribe or otherwise subsidize some version of what the American News has been able to provide for nearly 10 years.

That explanation was a statement that the American News did not have the moxy, financial or professional, to maintain its capitol coverage, and if there was any chance of continuing Mercer's coverage, the other newspapers would have to come up with the resources.  Otherwise,  Mercer's work would end the last of September.

Other newspapers did come up with a plan in which the American News will participate, but it did not include Bob Mercer.   On Oct. 1, J.J. Perry made a farewell tribute to Mercer and his solid journalism with this announcement of a new capitol bureau:

  Four papers — Aberdeen, the Watertown Public Opinion, Rapid City Journal and the Daily Republic — have joined together to help subsidize this bureau, and that reporting will appear in our products.

   Reporter Sarah Mearhoff grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from Penn State University with a journalism degree. She worked as a legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press in Mississippi earlier this year.
   In 2017, she worked for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association to provide coverage for six news outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
   With this new model, we can continue to publish original reporting from Pierre. The American News will also have access to content from the Forum News Service, a distribution platform with stories out of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In July, the KELOland Media Group announced it was hiring Bob Mercer:
  During the past nine years, he [Bob Mercer] operated a news bureau in Pierre for the Aberdeen American News and syndicated his stories to the other daily papers in the group.   He received the Associated Press Managing Editors journalist of the year award in 1986. The South Dakota Newspaper Association honored Mercer with its Distinguished Service award in 2017.
  Mercer will begin his reporting for KELOLAND Media Group in October.  He will be based out of Pierre, serving as the Capitol Bureau Chief, but will provide statewide coverage of political and government issues.  

KELO has become a refuge for old newspaper reporters.  When Kevin Woster quit the Rapid City Journal after work conditions became intolerable,  he was picked up by KELO.

In addition to his newspaper reports, Mercer published a blog Pure Pierre Politics, which I assume will continue.  It provides important subsidiary information and background to goings on in state government.  I trust that KELO will take competitive advantage of Mercers resources and make his work a prominent and regular feature of its online presence.  As for the American News and its cohort papers, Ms. Mearhoff will be busy building contacts and sources and acquiring knowledge of how things work in Pierre.

That leaves us to ponder how the American News could join a consortium to sponsor a new capitol bureau, but not keep Bob Mercer working for it.  Money is an obvious issue, as a source of advertising revenue, the Aberdeen Mall, received a death sentence with the closing of Herberger's department store.  And the Aberdeen downtown is about six blocks of consignment stores, health spas, and pawn shops which don't provide much shopping business or advertising revenue.  

When Perry acknowledged Mercer's work, he wrote:

Mercer is a throwback to the kind of shoe-leather reporter who has everyone’s phone number and knows which doors to knock on. His sources might not always like the questions, but they talk to him because they know they are treated fairly.
That describes the essential work of any competent beat reporter.  The term throwback suggests that mode od working is a thing of the past.   No matter what the medium, the process of journalism begins and ends with the working of gathering, organizing, and writing information.  If we are to have a functioning democracy, it had better not be a thing of the past.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States