MEDIA BRANDS: A newspaper's bigger priority should never compromise the coverage of its urban scene

If you were asked to dash off a list of newspapers that publish the best reporting on cities, you'd probably begin with the big dailies that cover urban jungles like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

If you were asked to dash off a list of newspapers that publish the best reporting on cities, you'd probably begin with the big dailies that cover urban jungles like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Civic Strategies, an Atlanta-based research and consulting firm, asked just that question and found some surprising results. In developing their first slate of Urban Journalism Awards, the firm's researchers found that the best journalism on the ins and outs of cities came from places not necessarily known for their urban character. The winners were the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, both of which are located in places dominated by one industry and known for their sprawl. Both newspapers, moreover, are best known for their national coverage. The criteria for the awards are as straightforward as they come. Staffers at Civic Strategies, who have long clipped relevant new articles for their research, began to count up just how many noteworthy pieces papers in the 20 largest markets produced over the course of the year. Following the Times and the Post were the San Francisco Chronicle, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Dallas Morning News. Even more interesting are some of the insights yielded by such a panoramic survey of this often-overlooked segment of journalism, especially when compared to national, business, or sports reporting. One shortcoming in urban journalism, says Otis White, president of Civic Strategies and a former reporter himself, is that reporters and editors don't understand the sheer sweep of the many urban stories. "Most journalists don't know that the business staff has something to contribute to the understanding of the city hall staff," he says. "In other words, the decision made at city hall on land use has enormous effects on real estate and retail and commerce in a city. Because the two staffs who cover half the story are not communicating with each other, they're not realizing their full potential." In rewarding insightful reporting on big issues - politics, commerce, real estate, and land use - the awards are a reminder that readers are entitled to the same level of comprehensive analysis of their own neighborhoods as they are from coverage of national politics or international affairs. This is even more important at a time when many newspapers are faced with dwindling circulation because of that old trend of flight from the urban areas to the suburbs. These papers' most pressing business problem is how to grab the attention of the affluent suburban reader. To do so, they open bureaus and create supplements and zoned editions. All of that is good as long as these moves don't come at the expense of the city, where social problems like crime and poverty are at least as pronounced and often more dire than suburban ailments. Programs like the Urban Journalism Awards, which focus attention on this just these issues, could go far in ensuring this doesn't happen.

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