Reserving my right to critique coverage later…

I’ll take the opportunity of July 4th to declare my independence from health policy-specific posts for the day.

The most troubling development in state government has not been anything in the State Capitol, but across the street, at 926 J St. That’s where most of the state newspapers have their statehouse bureaus, which are quickly being depopulated.

Some reporters have accepted buyouts. Others have been forced to retire. Yet others have simply moved out of town, or to an another career “in the building”, but not replaced at the paper. A few have been directly laid off. These are good reporters, senior and experienced journalists.

And the headlines suggest there might be more cuts to come in the newspaper business. This is distressing on several levels, as a colleague, as an advocate, as a reader, and as a citizen.

* It’s sad for those personally impacted. I talk to many political, health and general interest reporters, and have befriended many of them. They are smart, articulate, and chose journalism over perhaps more lucrative careers for the right reasons, and now are looking for a Plan B. For those in a noble profession, the morale of those who are left is not high.

* Professionally, it is hard to do my job as a consumer advocate on health issues if newspapers are going to be covering policy and government. Insurers, drug companies, hospitals, and other corporate interests may not care when the San Jose Mercury News axes its Sunday opinion section; they can always buy advertising in different venues to get its message out. Losing the articles and forums that provide equal time to all sides hurts the ability for consumer and community voices to be heard.

* I fear for the quality of the product. I like reading newspapers, both in print and online. My idea of a perfect Sunday includes sitting outside for a couple of hours going through several newspapers, from The New York Times to my local broadsheet. Some papers are getting noticeably thinner, furthering encouraging some to cancel their prescriptions, which would leads to further cuts, less content, and a exacerbated downward spiral.

* My biggest concern is beyond the impacts on my job, my friends and colleagues, or even the newspaper. It’s about our democracy, and the need for an informed citizenry, an accountable state government, and a diversity of news outlets and venues for reporting.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor, some argued that he would bring in a renewed media attention to state government, especially in star-obsessed Los Angeles. After the media frenzy of the recall, it seemed some outlets would have a beefed-up staff.

Alas, even the Terminator’s star power didn’t convince the entertainment-focused media to stay around in Sacramento and cover deficits, compacts, redistricting, and Medi-Cal. But if anything, it’s gotten worse. I was told that the Governor’s trip to Canada had a press contingent of exactly one pool reporter.

As the newspapers thin their ranks of reporters, it will be less likely that journalists will have specific beats and specialties, like health care. And yet health care (and other subjects) are getting more complex, not less, and can best be covered by those with a base of knowledge to be able to dig and get at the truth of an issue. I am a better advocate this year with my knowledge and experience on health issues than I was last year, and reporters and their articles benefit from that background and context as well.

So on this July 4th, when we celebrate our nation and our democracy, light a firework for the threatened profession of journalism as well. Our health, and so much more, depends on it.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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