I was saddened to hear about the layoffs at the San Jose Mercury News last week.
I was especially concerned to hear that one of the layoffs was Barbara Feder Ostrov, a long-time reporter on the health care beat. She was an excellent reporter, very well-versed in the issues, and not easily spun. I will miss talking to her, and reading her.
It’s not possible to replace that expertise and background and experience, and it seems that the newspaper is not going to try. These layoffs, and the larger crisis in the newspaper business, is actually big news for our health care system.
I have written with some alarm and passion before about the precipitous decline in the number of Sacramento bureau reporters covering state government. In this case, not only do we lose a savvy and sage journalist, but one of the few in California that had health care and health policy as a specific beat.
When a newspaper even has a “health reporter,” they usually are focused on personal health, providing lifestyle advice about diets and trends in eating and exercise. Some good stuff, probably popular, but not the focus on watching and reporting on the policies and practices of those who provide our health care–doctors, hospitals, insurers, etc.
Some of the remaining reporters who cover health care do it as part of a business beat, reporting how these institutions are doing financially. But what we need more of–and are getting less of–is hard-nosed reporting that really places public oversight on the cost and quality of the care that Californians get.
Health care is too big of an issue for the media to ignore, but even when the big scandal hits, general assignment reporters can only scratch the surface of a complex field, and will miss the big stories. I have talked to very good reporters who need some time just to get up to speed on the basics: the difference between Medicaid and Medicare, an HMO or a PPO, the DMHC and DOI. And given the contraints of electronic media, TV reports never get to that level of detail to start.
There’s still some excellent reporting going on, but there’s a ton of stories to unveil in our health care system, and it seems some of them will go uncovered.
I have confidence that Barb Feder will land on her feet, but I fear we are all worse off for the layoffs of her and her colleagues.