How the Decline of the Newspaper Business Harms Our Democracy and Has Forced My Crime Novel Hero Out of the Investigative Reporter Racket

Six years ago, when I took early retirement from my journalism career to write hard-boiled crime novels, I decided to make my protagonist a newspaper reporter instead of a cop or a private investigator. I had four good reasons.

1) They say you should write what you know, and I’d spent 40 years working as a journalist for The Providence Journal, The Hartford Courant, and the Associated Press, much of it reporting and editing local, national, and international investigative reporting.

2) I love reading private detective novels, but after all those years writing about real life, I couldn’t suspend my own disbelief enough to write one. Real private eyes are nothing like fictional ones. The real ones spend most of their time hunting down child-support delinquents, investigating pilfering from warehouses, checking the validity of insurance claims, delivering summonses in civil cases, and doing background checks on job applicants. Most go their entire careers without ever investigating a major crime.

3) Unlike cops, investigative reporters can’t subpoena records or drag someone into the station house for questioning, so in some respects, that makes their work more challenging. But they also have an advantage. A lot of people who talk to reporters would never spill anything to a cop.

4) While I wanted to write suspenseful novels that would be fun to read, I also wanted them to address a serious social issue in an entertaining way. American newspapers are circling the drain. In recent years, some have shut down, and economic changes brought on by the internet have forced virtually all of them to slash the size of their news staffs. Soon, many more will be gone. This is a slow-motion disaster for American democracy because there is nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest brokers of news and information.

The old broadcast TV Networks, undercut by competition from cable, have cut way back on their reporting staffs too—and they never were all that great begin with. Cable TV news has degenerated into a swamp of celebrity news, shrieking talking heads, and, in the cases of FOX and MSNBC, warring propaganda machines for the right and left.

And the handful of online news organizations that actually strive to do an honest job draw much of their news from TV reports and dying newspapers and do not report anywhere near enough original material to make up for what is being lost.

Sure, a few traditional news organizations like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press continue to do a solid job of covering national and international news, although even they aren’t as comprehensive as they were 20 years ago. But the decline has taken a big toll on both the quantity and quality of investigative reporting. All reporting is expensive, and great investigative reporting, which can tie up a news organization’s best reporters for months—or even a year—is much more so. So far, no one outside of the AP and the fast-disappearing newspapers has demonstrated the willingness or the resources to pay for much of it.

And that’s not all. As local and state-wide newspapers shrivel and die, who is reporting the news from our town halls, police stations and state houses? When I started my career at The Providence Journal in 1968, that then-great metropolitan newspaper had local news bureaus scattered all over the state to cover the political, police, business, and community news in every one of its 39 cities and towns. Today, those local bureaus are long gone, and the only community the paper covers regularly now is Providence. Who is covering the school committee in Warren or the zoning board in Coventry now? Nobody.

For my fictional investigative reporter, Liam Mulligan, being stuck in a dead-end job at the dying Providence Dispatch, offered a wealth of dramatic possibilities. Every day, he had to fight with his editors to carve out time from the daily routine of getting a newspaper out in order to pursue the investigative stories that he lived for. And in each of the first four novels, as layoffs continued to shrink the size of the fictional Dispatch, he felt compelled to do more and more investigative work on his own time.

For the most part, journalists are portrayed as vultures in the popular culture. Why? Because too many writers—especially those who write for the big and small screens—are quick to grab hold of the nearest cliché. The truth is that the vast majority of journalists are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to the difficult task of reporting the truth in a world full of powerful people who lie like you and I breathe.

So it was my hope that as my readers watched the skill and dedication with which Mulligan worked, they would gain a greater appreciation of what is being lost as newspapers fade into history. I strove to make the first four novels in this series both compelling crime stories and a lyrical epitaph for the business that Mulligan and I love.

But as I was completing A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth novel in the series, it became evident that Mulligan’s newspaper career was coming to an end. The Dispatch had been sold off to a predatory conglomerate that had no interest in investigative stories and saw news as nothing more than something to fill the spaces between the ads. And Mulligan’s squabbles with his editors were making life untenable for both of them.

By the time that novel ended, Mulligan had been fired in spectacular fashion, accused of a journalism ethics violation that he had not committed.

So the beginning of The Dread Line, the new novel in the series, finds Mulligan (like so many newspaper journalists who have been fired or laid off in recent years) piecing together a new life for himself. In Mulligan’s case, it’s a life that straddles both sides of the law. He’s getting a little part-time work from his friend McCracken’s private detective agency. He’s picking up beer and cigar money by freelancing for a local news website. And he’s earning some illegal cash looking after his semi-retired mobster friend’s bookmaking business.

And, as usual, he still manages to find trouble. He’s feuding with a feral cat that keeps dropping its kills on his porch. He’s obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he’s enraged that someone in town is torturing animals. All this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his full attention. The New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story), hire McCracken and Mulligan (not a true story) to check the background of a college star they are considering drafting. By all accounts, the player is a choir boy, so at first the job seems routine. But as soon as they start asking questions, they get payback. The player, it seems, has something to hide—and someone is willing to kill to make sure it stays secret.

It is worth noting, however, that Mulligan doesn’t think the death of newspapers was inevitable. “Newspapers see themselves as victims of the digital age. They are so full of shit,” he said in an earlier book in the series. “The internet isn’t killing newspapers; they are committing suicide.”

“When the internet first got rolling, newspapers were the experts on reporting the news and selling classified advertising,” he continued. “They were ideally positioned to dominate the new medium. Instead, they sat around with their thumbs up their asses while upstarts like Google, the Drudge Report, and ESPN.com lured away their audience and newcomers like Craigslist, eBay, and AutoTrader.com stole their advertising business. By the time newspapers finally figured out what was going on and tried to make a go of it online, it was too late. This all happened because newspapers didn’t understand what business they were in,” Mulligan said. “They thought they were in the newspaper business, but they were really in the news and advertising business. It’s a classic mistake—the same one the railroads made in the 1950s when the interstate highway system was being built. If Penn Central had understood it was in the freight business instead of the railroad business, it would be the biggest trucking company in the country today.”

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I see things the same way

This essay first appeared on The Cockeyed Pessimist, the fine blog run by Marty Shepard of Permanent Press, a fine small press that publishes excellent crime novels. You can read this and other blog entries here.

The Dread Line by Bruce DeSilva is the fifth hardboiled crime novel featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter and part-time private eye in Rhode Island. To order it from a choice of independent or chain online bookstores, please click here. 

dread line

 

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About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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