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January 13, 2014 1:26 PM Thank Local News for the Bridgegate Story

Unfortunately, few small towns have that kind of coverage anymore.

By Steven Waldman

My first reaction when I saw that the Bridge story was first covered by the Bergen Record’s full-time transportation columnist was, “wow—the Bergen Record has a full-time transportation columnist?”

This scandal is a wonderful exhibit of why local journalism matters. Apparently this scandal first made the papers when a complaint to the Bergen Records publisher was forwarded to the “Road Warrior” writer, John Chichowski. He followed up, got the details of the morass, and printed a plea from the mayor of Ft. Lee: “I don’t understand the basis for this. Is there a punitive overtone here? Is there something we should have done?”

This week’s revelations of smoking gun emails came via another Bergen Record reporter, Shawn Boberg. He put in a dozen public records requests, worked sources and got informal leaks of much of what he was seeking.

Just as interesting, according to a New York Times account, the very fact that Chichowski was poking around was what first caught the eye of the Port Authority’s executive director:

“The evening before, Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority and an appointee of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, had noticed the inquiries from Mr. Cichowski on an internal sheet recording calls from the news media. They led him on Friday morning to find out from bridge officials about the closed lanes.”

This reminds us that accountability reporting works not only because of what is printed but by giving public officials the sense that someone out there is watching.

So why did the Bergen Record have a full-time transportation reporter and another investigative reporter they could detail to the story? According to the Washington Post recap it’s because it’s a family owned paper that had managed to avoid massive layoffs: “The newspaper’s staffing has weathered the decade-long industry decline by losing just 10 percent of its newsroom staff from its peak, says Borg, and there are “no future staff reductions planned.” Nationally, newsrooms have lost about one third of their reporters, with many metro dailies seeing even sharper cuts.

New Jerseyans were fortunate to have the Bergen Record around. Too bad thousands of other communities around the country aren’t so lucky.

Steven Waldman a Washington Monthly contributing editor, was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and author its landmark report on the future of journalism.

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