"I couldn’t have followed that lead even if I had wanted to."
November 7, 2015 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Confessions of a Paywall Journalist :
Policy journalism in Washington is thriving. It’s just not being written for you, and you’re probably never going to read it.

While mainstream media outlets and their D.C. bureaus shrink or disappear entirely, the trade press — subscription publications aimed at those working or interested in specific industries — is quietly booming, often covering government policy more thoroughly than the big-name mastheads, writes John Heltman, a reporter for one such outlet.

The problem is, industry insidersm lobbyists, traders, political staffers, and professional wonks are the only ones who read titles like "Oil & Gas Journal," "Aviation Week," or "Tax Notes." And the outlets have little incentive to write stories about how the issues they cover will affect the everyday public.
posted by retrograde (13 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Tax Notes is good.

I'm not sure I think that there is declining good analysis available to the public, though. I suspect there is more than ever, in spite of the revenue challenges of the press.
posted by grobstein at 6:19 PM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was wondering if anybody would link to this! I used to work with John when he was at Inside Washington as the other full-time Water Policy Report guy, and he's not wrong about the state of affairs here. We write for people who already know the stakes and are much more concerned about the inside-baseball aspects, so a story can bounce around the trade press for months before anybody picks it up for the general public, or even just seizes on a reason they should care. I do feel like that's less of a problem in environmental policy because there's such a robust network of activist groups trying to get the word out, but even then you get things like that offshore drilling story.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:35 PM on November 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

This isn't really a new phenomenon - trade pubs (and now Web sites) have long scooped their bigfoot MSM counterparts on Washington news in their niches (disclaimer: I'm a former trade-pub reporter and editor). At the annual American Society of Business Press Editors awards ceremonies, it was always impressive to see just how much good journalism was being turned out by publications covering the trucking industry and pig farming.
posted by adamg at 6:55 PM on November 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

The flip side of this is, how many people want to read it? At least on the tax side, it's an ongoing thing that frustrates small firm tax accountants, I know that much--it doesn't matter what your politics are, there's all kinds of really infuriating stuff happening, and yet your clients care only about how much it impacts their tax bill and how much it impacts their tax prep bill, and the latter they're only barely willing to tolerate any increases in. You try explaining that you can't give them a good estimate of their tax liability because we're expecting section 179 depreciation to be higher than what it returned to after last year's bill expired, but Congress isn't going to get around to actually passing a bill until January, and we don't know exactly what it'll be, and there's no guarantee of any of this. You think anybody writes to their elected representatives outraged about the disparate impact of the new repair regulations on small businesses? No. But if you run a business with, say, no more than a dozen employees and under a million in gross receipts, chances are that stuff like this is costing you more actual cash than the Affordable Care Act. But one of them, they're outraged because the TV told them to be outraged.

I think people will say they care about stuff like taxes and environmental policy and so on, but trying to explain such things to the general public is frustrating, because by the time you're 10% through the background information they need to understand the subject, they're bored. I don't want to know what would happen to American tax policy if more people were outraged about it but they were outraged based on Fox News soundbites.
posted by Sequence at 6:58 PM on November 7, 2015 [17 favorites]

Oil & Gas Journal is okay.

American Oil and Gas Reporter has the real legislative lowdown, though.

Just sayin'.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:00 PM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

So it's "booming" only in the sense that policy information is becoming more deeply corporatized for various powerful industries and filtered through their vested interests, in opposition to journalism as a public good. This contraction and mediation of political information should be worrying, and yet also entirely predictable.
posted by polymodus at 7:08 PM on November 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

Of the business, by the business, for the business.
posted by chortly at 7:12 PM on November 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Having worked both sides, the rub was always trade journalists make better money, without the fame, and mainstream guys get the fame without the bucks (on the local level) and there was always jealousy across the line.

But honestly, my fave was listening to brand new journalists talking smack about PR "flacks," and all the oldsters moving from the newspaper to ad agencies and PR positions.

Ever thus, I reckon.
posted by valkane at 7:21 PM on November 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Candy Crush was recently sold for 24 times the Washington Post. What more is there to say?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:24 PM on November 7, 2015 [23 favorites]

often covering government policy more thoroughly than the big-name mastheads,

Take out the "often" and I believe it.
posted by jpe at 7:30 PM on November 7, 2015

Plus, there's money in trades. You're talking to people who regularly make big purchasing or policy decisions, and you're talking to them about the information they need to make those decisions, and advertisers are very interested in being part of that conversation. And it is - or can and should be - real journalism, with the zest that you're talking smack about big concerns who fairly directly pay your wages and have huge resources to make your life a misery. Which absolutely they will do, if they think they can get away with it. And there is a lot of good journalism; I was at an awards do once where Will Self (he wrote a column for an architectural trade) was up against a young woman from the Nursing TImes and a crusty old agricultural type who wrote about pigs. The Nursing Times won (rightly), and Self stormed out in a huff. Now that's proper journalism.

The Web's changed a lot of the dynamic, but by no means all. The irony of all those big concerns being able to talk directly to their customer/client base is not only that they don't know how to do it, but when they hire all those vintage hacks who've moved on/been moved on from their journalism jobs, they actively stop them from doing it properly too. "We want proper, credible writing, just don't mention our competitors, don't even hint at anything bad, and make sure you dedicate the first four paras to our marketing vision..." (and it's always your fault when nobody reads the damn stuff. Just hold your nose and double your rates...)

Trades can be good or bad, but when they're on song they're an example of properly reourced, properly fearless journalism working on behalf of a community even when that community doesn't like it much.
posted by Devonian at 5:45 AM on November 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Candy Crush was recently sold for 24 times the Washington Post. What more is there to say?
posted by RobotVoodooPower

That wrenched an anguished lol out of me.
posted by MrVisible at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2015

DC is chock full of writing about policy on all sides. If there is a counter-narrative to what is in the trade press, you'll find it in a white paper written by a think tank. It's not like a Senate Judiciary staffer is going to believe what they read about banking regulation in American Banker ...
posted by yarly at 5:46 PM on November 8, 2015

« Older Decision Election 2016 All-Star Clusterfuck   |   Rent control has strange side effects Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments