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Who Will Tell The People?

It’s been heartening to see a broad response to the disclosure, deep within the magazine’s new cover story on the Ohio political landscape, that the FBI is investigating questionable donations by employees of a direct-marketing company in Canton, Ohio to the campaigns of Republicans Josh Mandel, the state treasurer challenging Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Rep. Jim Renacci, who is running against Rep. Betty Sutton in a newly configured House district. Ohio newspapers have leapt on the report, getting Mandel’s campaign to acknowledge the investigation (they had not returned my calls) and running follow-up stories on at least three front pages in Ohio today (the Toledo Blade, Akron Beacon-Journal, and Dayton Daily News.)

But one also can’t help but look at this episode as another example of the public cost of the woes of local journalism. Consider: the questionable donations have been public knowledge since last August, when they were brought to light in an article by Tony Cook of the Blade. Yet as far as I can tell, that initial report did not lead to any follow-up pieces, least of all by the papers that cover the corner of northeast Ohio where the company, Suarez Industries, is based—the Canton Repository and the Beacon-Journal. Glad as I am to take credit for uncovering the FBI investigation, it did not exactly require Watergate-level reporting—while in Ohio, I simply visited the homes of some of the Suarez employees and asked them about their contributions, which prompted a couple of them to mention the FBI inquiry.

What’s to account for this? Well, it may have something to do with the known litigiousness of Suarez Industries’ CEO, Benjamin Suarez. But that alone should not be enough to sway the press—papers have nothing to fear in this country if their reporting is accurate. The more likely explanation is simply the cost of the deep cutbacks in local reporting. When I stopped by the big press room of the stately Ohio state capitol in Columbus earlier this month, on a day when the legislature was in full session, there were all of two reporters present—this in the 7th most populous state in the country. This is a problem that is close to my heart—I worked at six newspapers prior to joining the magazine, and have been pained by the cutbacks they’ve since undergone—but it’s one that’s easy to lose sight of in Washington, where it seems every week brings the expansion of yet another Beltway-insider publication or Web site. The cost of this journalistic contraction cannot be overstated—it helps explain, for one thing, how lobbyists targeting state legislatures, like the conservative ALEC network, can have such under-the-radar success on issues like the stand-your-ground laws, which can be passed all across the country without anyone really noticing until the Trayvon Martin case.

What’s to be done? Well, that’s a matter for a thousand panel discussions and Columbia Journalism Review articles. But for now, I’d just urge everyone to read and support their local papers, wherever they are, and to coax them in every way possible to do their job to their utmost ability. If a company’s employees make $200,000 in questionable donations to two high-profile campaigns, that shouldn’t be a tree falling in the forest.

P.S. On a lighter note, it’s worth watching the response by Josh Mandel, the astonishingly youthful-looking Senate candidate, to questions about the initial Blade report last year. Especially amusing is the bit about how he likes to send “thank you notes” to his contributors.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis