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The State of South Dakota Journalism

Aug 21, 2013

The Woster critique got my wife and me discussing the state and fate of journalism in South Dakota. While razzing our reporters is as popular (cliché?) as dissing school lunch, our newspapers are far from hopeless. Bob Mercer has convinced seven newspapers to run his Pierre coverage. Scott Waltman and his Aberdeen colleagues are doing good work laying out many of the facts of the Northern Beef Packers debacle. Messrs. WalkerHarriman, MontgomeryVergesHult, and Ellis and Ms. Wischmeyer give me plenty to read and blog.

Our broadcast journalism is thin stew saved mostly by chunks of good South Dakota Public Broadcasting. SDPB goes great guns with Statehouse during the Legislative session. SDPB Radio offers decent news coverage throughout the year, although one has to hunt on their home page to find the link to their South Dakota news. SDPB TV offers no regular South Dakota news programming. The rest of the airwaves are the tasteless gruel of dog/sick kid/crime/Sanford good deed of the week.

If South Dakota journalism has problems, they likely stem (as the Woster critique suggests) from the corporate devotion to maximizing revenue rather than knowledge. But I suggest a corollary: One-party politics weakens journalism.

Conventional journalists seek fairness and objectivity. They don't want to be seen as beating up on just one party. They want to show their willingness to investigate the monkeyshines of all parties, Republican, Democrat, or otherwise.

But in South Dakota, there are few Democrats in power to commit monkeyshines worthy of investigation. If you're investigating corruption in government in South Dakota, you are by definition investigating Republicans. Watchdog journalism will be seen by many as Democratic journalism. When Republicans dominate the offices that can provide reporters with information for stories and provide advertisers with contracts and corporate welfare,  journalists (or the publishers calling their shots) can't help balking a little at waging what may look like a war on just one party.

Elect more Democrats, and Jonathan Ellis could say, "Sure, I beat up Secretary Gant the other day. But look at my investigation of our Democratic governor's crony capitalism, or the mistakes the Democrats are making running the state's foster care program. I'm an equal-opportunity watchdog!"

Good journalism takes guts in any culture. But it takes more guts than some corporate models can muster in a one-party system like South Dakota.

Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and has taught math, English, speech, and French at high schools East and West River.


07:30 am - Thu, August 22 2013
Bernie said:
Interesting perspective, Cory, and so far as journalism's responsibility to uncover corruption I think you're right on target.

Democratic policymakers' biggest gripe with the media in general, not just newspapers, is that reporters don't fully investigate the big problems of the day — education funding or lack thereof, people not having access to health care, poverty issues including lack of even basic pre-natal care for poor expectant mothers, the cost of tech school and college, etc.

We have some of the very poorest counties and communities in America within our borders and it just gets a shrug at best.

The tough issues need relentless pounding. How many of us would be drinking Coke or Budweiser if we just heard about it once? There's little crusading, and when there is there's too little followup and too little scrutiny of conflicting parties' views.

So my point is that revealing corruption, which is always a good thing, is only a small part of the story of sorry journalism.
10:53 am - Thu, August 22 2013
dave tunge said:
So the answer is crusading and advertising by the media?
Would this be akin to Sebelius tackling the tough issue of selling Obamacare?
Maybe if all the media provided kids games and gave away prizes it would draw attention to the big problems of the day..........hey, if it works for her??

Sorry Bernie...........couldn't resist :-)
07:38 am - Fri, August 23 2013
Bernie said:
Yes, more crusading is a good thing.
07:44 am - Fri, August 23 2013
Crusading, not advertising, Dave... but the analogy to Coke and Bud is apt! We could analogize Bernie's call to crusade to teaching: I don't tell kids about verb conjugation once and then skip to something more electrifying (though what's more electrifying than verb conjugation? ); I drill them over and over, day after day, to make the knowledge stick.
11:22 am - Fri, August 23 2013
Lee Schoenbeck said:
Well from another perspective, I think it’s really just about doing their job. I don't think it’s crusading or advertising - I think that's not doing their job.

The recent piece the Argus did on the failings of the South Dakota Division of Insurance in protecting South Dakotans was good journalism. A reporter took a lead and dug. That's what they should do. I don't think it warrants a touchdown dance - it's just a good example of competent reporting.

The challenge today is that there are fewer corporate entities willing to fund that time consuming work. the Organizations face too many competitive pressures from free options -- like Cory! In fact, Cory, from an economic perspective, you are actually part of the "problem". Because of the competitive from free media, we get less good journalism. We get faster information, and reasonably accurate information on the spasm news of the day. But, it's killing the real deep pieces, and it has absolutely killed the repeat coverage of deep issues (your "advertising" analogy).

But today, you aren't going to push back against the free media - so we adjust.
11:23 am - Sat, August 24 2013
Fascinating! I am the danger! :-)
06:18 am - Mon, August 26 2013
Ed said:
last word-last word

09:47 am - Fri, August 30 2013
David Newquist says South Dakota journalism has been in a dismal state for at least a generation:

"Journalistic doldrums are not new to South Dakota. In the mid-1980s when the first mustering of computer networks was attempted, a bunch of professors on the northern plains put together a Northwest Database. One of its features was a journalism review which was largely contributed to and edited by working journalists. Their consensus was that South Dakota, along with five or six other states, had the worst press in the nation. The consensus was that news selection and editorial emphasis was guided by politics, not any interest in providing readers and viewers complete information about their state."

—David Newquist, "No Country for Old Journalists," Northern Valley beacon, 2013.08.29,

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