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If A Tree Falls In Ohio...

The news last week that Michigan Republicans were rushing through a bill to make the state "right-to-work" was a reminder that much of the action in the next few years is going to be happening at the state level, not in Washington: battles over unions, the implementation of the new health care law, and social issues such as gay marriage and drug legalization, to name just a few fronts. But from a bordering state came renewed reason to worry about whether all this highly consequential activity would get adequate coverage and public scrutiny: The Cleveland Plain Dealer announced that it would be cutting one-third of its staff, further raising the hefty body count from the country's mid-size regional papers (a toll that has been concentrated recently on papers owned by Advance Publications, which, in addition to the Conde Nast magazine goliath, owns the Plain Dealer and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which recently stopped circulating a daily print edition.) It's really getting to the point where we have to ask: If a tree—or a union or a company or a corrupt local official—falls in Ohio or Michigan or anywhere else outside the well-covered coastal precincts, will anybody hear it? And if not, what is to be done?

This is hardly a new concern of mine. A few months ago, I noted that a discovery I made in Ohio—an FBI investigation into large, questionable donations made by employees for a North Canton company to an Ohio congressman and Republican Senate candidate—surely would have been exposed much earlier in the days of a more vigorous local press. T.C. Brown followed up with a reported piece in the Columbia Journalism Review exploring how this story had been overlooked, and what he found was predictably alarming:

Ohio is no exception to the bleeding the newspaper industry has seen nationwide. When I worked at The Plain Dealer’s Statehouse Bureau, we had six reporters and a secretary. Today, that bureau has shrunk to three reporters. The Columbus bureau for the Akron Beacon Journal once had four reporters and two interns. Today, that bureau is closed.
The shrinking-staff scenario is one reason the Beacon Journal, which is less than 20 miles from North Canton, has used the wire to report the Suarez story. In a phone interview, reporter Stephanie Warsmith noted that the newsroom had 210 people when she joined the paper in 1998; it has since dropped by two-thirds.

Not long afterward, I happened across another Ohio story that one has to imagine would have leaked out earlier had there been more ears to the ground: that the CEO of a major Ohio-based coal company, Murray Energy, for years had pressured his white-collar employees into giving campaign contributions to the company PAC and favored Republican candidates. The plain fact of the matter is that both of these stories got out because Ohio was, for this year, crawling with political reporters from national outlets who were there to cover the decisive Electoral College battleground—the New York Times even designated one of its top writers to document the life of one Ohio town in a massive four-part front-page series

But that swarm vanished on November 7, leaving Ohio, like nearly all other states, to the coverage of regional outlets like the Plain Dealer, which will now have even fewer resources to do the job. Yes, now and then, the Times will helicopter in for bravura stories like Louise Story's recent series investigating state and local tax incentives for employers. But the ins and outs of the big local battles will still be up to the local press. See the yeoman's work that's being done by the Detroit Free Press—a paper that now gets home delivered only three days a week—on the right-to-work legislation, including this scorcher of an editorial by the board that two years ago endorsed Gov. Rick Snyder.

After the Plain Dealer announcement—which is being challenged by the Newspaper Guild—I checked in with Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer-winning columnist who left the paper last year to spare herself and the paper the agita that was sure to come with her husband Sherrod Brown's Senate reelection campaign. I had done a piece on Schultz shortly after her departure and so was hardly surprised at how hard she's taken the happenings at her former paper:

I can't stop thinking of my friends — reporters and editors who have nothing to do with the decision-making — who are still showing up every day doing everything they can to produce a top-notch newspaper...I want everyone to know it, because that's the kind of people they are. They're scared, frustrated and even angry, and yet they keep giving it their all. Despite the pay cuts and furloughs and increased stress of their daily jobs, they still love what they do for a living. They are the true believers.

...The union kid in me has felt for some time that we had to learn how to become activists for journalism. We were so used to reporting the hell out of a story and then assuming everyone would value our hard work, our judgment, our take on things. Some of that was arrogance born of habit, to be sure, but there was a humility in that, too. Fewer hotshots, more team players, producing the kind of journalism that comes about when you don't spend every day trying to prove that you're the smartest person in every room. But we should have started promoting the brand years ago. Journalists — certainly Guild members at The Plain Dealer — were discouraged from doing so, but, honestly, we too often turned a withering eye to those who got special attention for their talents. Old story, that one. Newsrooms are tough places.

Like newspapers across the country, The Plain Dealer waited too long to explain to Cleveland readers, and its leaders, why The Plain Dealer mattered. Now, it's chipping away at what remains. To paraphrase a friend and former colleague, Margie Frazer, when I heard the news about the PD cuts, it was as if someone had stepped on my heart.

So, what is to be done? Well, there are glimmers of hope. In Cleveland, as elsewhere, there is a movement to replace some of the basic accountability function of the newspaper with a nonprofit investigative venture. But the venture in Cleveland is just getting organized and only a few of its counterparts in other cities have so far showed the ability to scale up to the size necessary to have a real impact. "Obviously we can’t fill the gap of a daily newspaper," said Lori Ashyk, one of the Cleveland organizers. Cleveland also has an alt-weekly, and an outfit called MedCityNews covers the city's burgeoning health sector. But it doesn't yet have the kind of alternative online sources for daily schools or crime coverage that have been springing up in some larger cities, such as Philadelphia and Washington.

As I see it, part of the solution is going to have to come from outside these cities—from the national media capitals. Even as coverage has been withering in the provinces, it's been expanding in the Acela Corridor, where the likes of Bloomberg, Reuters, Politico and the National Journal/Atlantic empire are vying to provide the most granular coverage of the Beltway and Wall Street. This coverage is surely nearing the saturation point, especially given how much of the real business and political action is happening out in Real America. Which means that the big Beltway players may start to realize that their competitive advantage will lie in doing a better job of covering Cleveland and Columbus and Lansing and Austin and Tallahassee and Chicago. Heck, they might even hire some of those laid off local reporters who know the lay of the land, and where the bodies are buried, and whether a governor's claims about anti-union legislation hold up to scrutiny.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis