Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

“Readers would be better served by less on the politics of how the government is being run and more on its actual running.”

Most of these predictions are really prescriptions, and this time I’m not going to pretend otherwise. What I hope we can have in 2021 is more coverage of the effectiveness of the federal government.

As we look back for the lessons of the last four crazy years, I think we can probably agree that one subject that didn’t get enough attention is how poor a job of administering the Trump administration did.

  • The signature promise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was building a wall along the Mexican border. That border stretches 1,954 miles; in four years in office, they will have built new wall along 9 miles (less than one half of one percent), and replaced old walls along 441 other miles. Fully 72 percent of the border remains as wall-less as it was.
  • Trump’s one boast about the pandemic is that he “banned” travel from China in February. But the “ban” didn’t apply to 40,000 Americans and others who returned after it was imposed. And by limiting the “ban” to China, it seems very likely in retrospect that JFK airport became a superspreader Ground Zero in mid-March as people poured in from Europe.
  • The early and repeated failures on developing and distributing tests, at the CDC and elsewhere, were probably the key failure of the initial governmental response to the crisis.
  • Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement has, by common consent, left Iran closer to producing nuclear weapons, as has Trump’s flurry of visits and “love letters” with respect to North Korean ICBMs.

Whether anyone favored or opposed these policies, this is quite a record of execution from the executive branch, a sad report for the first Wharton graduate to become president. It’s not, of course, that these subjects weren’t covered — but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said they were the focus of coverage of these issues.

Of course, such problems didn’t begin and won’t end with Trump. George W. Bush’s most important policy decision as president was seriously undermined politically by his administration’s failure to adequately provide body armor and other protection to troops he had ordered deployed. And Barack Obama’s greatest achievement in office was nearly undone by the disastrous initial online rollout of the health care exchanges (can’t wait to see what he says about that in Volume 2!).

Looking ahead to a Biden presidency, what does this mean? I would suggest the following:

  • Readers would be better served by less on the politics of how the government is being run and more on its actual running.
  • For instance, what really is the state of readiness for vaccine distribution? The parts of Operation Warp Speed that sent companies big checks for vaccine development and signed big contracts to buy doses were easy as an administrative matter. Assurances that those shots will actually go into arms are starting to sound like the pollyannaish noises we heard for months earlier this year about testing. This is a critical story, and the press should dig in, nationally and locally. Then, no matter how the Trumpers leave things, how well and how quickly can Biden and his team make further progress?
  • To take another example, if there is an infrastructure bill in 2021, running fewer of the easier stories on conflicts of interest and more of the harder ones on whether stuff is actually being built would be a useful corrective.

Reporting on such things is harder than covering tweets or relaying the complaints of this or that politician or group. It takes time, patience, and a genuine willingness to again set the news agenda in newsrooms and in response to what readers care about, rather than to have those we cover set the agenda for us. But the outcome of more reporting on the work of government would get us closer in the best sense to journalism as the first rough draft of history, and would provide a truer measure of accountability.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

Most of these predictions are really prescriptions, and this time I’m not going to pretend otherwise. What I hope we can have in 2021 is more coverage of the effectiveness of the federal government.

As we look back for the lessons of the last four crazy years, I think we can probably agree that one subject that didn’t get enough attention is how poor a job of administering the Trump administration did.

  • The signature promise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was building a wall along the Mexican border. That border stretches 1,954 miles; in four years in office, they will have built new wall along 9 miles (less than one half of one percent), and replaced old walls along 441 other miles. Fully 72 percent of the border remains as wall-less as it was.
  • Trump’s one boast about the pandemic is that he “banned” travel from China in February. But the “ban” didn’t apply to 40,000 Americans and others who returned after it was imposed. And by limiting the “ban” to China, it seems very likely in retrospect that JFK airport became a superspreader Ground Zero in mid-March as people poured in from Europe.
  • The early and repeated failures on developing and distributing tests, at the CDC and elsewhere, were probably the key failure of the initial governmental response to the crisis.
  • Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement has, by common consent, left Iran closer to producing nuclear weapons, as has Trump’s flurry of visits and “love letters” with respect to North Korean ICBMs.

Whether anyone favored or opposed these policies, this is quite a record of execution from the executive branch, a sad report for the first Wharton graduate to become president. It’s not, of course, that these subjects weren’t covered — but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said they were the focus of coverage of these issues.

Of course, such problems didn’t begin and won’t end with Trump. George W. Bush’s most important policy decision as president was seriously undermined politically by his administration’s failure to adequately provide body armor and other protection to troops he had ordered deployed. And Barack Obama’s greatest achievement in office was nearly undone by the disastrous initial online rollout of the health care exchanges (can’t wait to see what he says about that in Volume 2!).

Looking ahead to a Biden presidency, what does this mean? I would suggest the following:

  • Readers would be better served by less on the politics of how the government is being run and more on its actual running.
  • For instance, what really is the state of readiness for vaccine distribution? The parts of Operation Warp Speed that sent companies big checks for vaccine development and signed big contracts to buy doses were easy as an administrative matter. Assurances that those shots will actually go into arms are starting to sound like the pollyannaish noises we heard for months earlier this year about testing. This is a critical story, and the press should dig in, nationally and locally. Then, no matter how the Trumpers leave things, how well and how quickly can Biden and his team make further progress?
  • To take another example, if there is an infrastructure bill in 2021, running fewer of the easier stories on conflicts of interest and more of the harder ones on whether stuff is actually being built would be a useful corrective.

Reporting on such things is harder than covering tweets or relaying the complaints of this or that politician or group. It takes time, patience, and a genuine willingness to again set the news agenda in newsrooms and in response to what readers care about, rather than to have those we cover set the agenda for us. But the outcome of more reporting on the work of government would get us closer in the best sense to journalism as the first rough draft of history, and would provide a truer measure of accountability.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Cory Haik   Be essential

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers