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Stars and Stripes Ombudsman

For Stripes, making news makes a difference

By TOBIAS NAEGELE | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: May 30, 2018

There are more news sources today than ever before. Even in a niche market like military news, you can choose from among dozens of sources, ranging from national news networks like ABC, Fox or NPR to long-established military specialists like Military.com, MilitaryTimes.com and Stripes.com.

Just about every mainstream news organization includes some coverage of military interest. But only a relative few produce substantive original military journalism themselves. Doing so is one of Stars and Stripes’ unique market advantages. With Stripes’ more than two dozen reporters in more than a dozen locations, most of which are on military bases, no other news organization can match its reporting resources or access to the military.

Military Times once boasted just as many, but now only about half that number. Military.com has even fewer.

Yet Stripes’ reporting advantage does not translate into readership. It lags far behind Military.com, the category leader with more than 4 million unique visitors a month — about four times more than Stripes.com.

Both draw from much of the same pool of content. Stripes relies heavily on The Associated Press, though its AP content is not indexed for Google search. It also recycles a large volume of Washington Post and articles distributed by the Tribune News Service, which pulls content from numerous daily newspapers.

Military.com, which also draws on AP content, also aggregates content from nontraditional sources such as TaskandPurpose.com, a 4-year-old military lifestyle startup that publishes “authentic and unfiltered perspectives on military and veterans issues” and which gets more traffic than Stripes.com.

Military.com also gets content from … Stars and Stripes.

To compete in this mixed-up world, Stripes needs to do a better job defining what it is and what kind of journalism it practices. It needs to make news by identifying the issues and concerns affecting military people today, both overseas and stateside, and casting a clear spotlight on the problems and injustices affecting them and those nearby. It needs to focus on what’s important to military members, their families and military civilian workers, first, and then veterans and retirees second.

Sometimes it does that really well. A few recent examples:

  • Stripes reporter Dianna Cahn’s April 9 report, “Foreign-born recruits, promised fast track to citizenship, stuck in ‘mindless bureaucracy,’ ” documented how Army policy effectively trapped skilled recruits under the restrictive rules imposed during basic training and advanced individual training for a year or more at a time. Two weeks later, the Army loosened its restrictions, as Cahn reported April 26.
  • Stripes reporter Will Morris’ April 23 article exposed how Chinese-made cellphones were being sold to servicemembers on overseas military bases — even though U.S. intelligence officials had warned the American public to avoid those phones months earlier because of security risks. Morris’ first article caught the Army and Air Force Exchange Service by surprise; a week later, a May 2 follow-up reported all three exchange services announced they had banned sales of those phones worldwide.
  • Stripes reporter Jennifer Svan’s reported May 29 on how the decision to change the employment status of non-appropriated fund employees at Ramstein Air Base in Germany cut take-home pay and raised taxes for many such employees. It’s unlikely that article will change the situation on that base — but by shining a light on the situation, it may affect plans to expand that approach to other installations.

Other important stories in recent weeks included follow-up stories on United Airlines’ controversial decision to stop transporting some cats and dogs overseas -- a story first broken by military.com -- which might have forced families to leave pets behind or pay thousands to get them home. Now defense officials say they are working with the airlines to find a solution. Another Stripes report exposed a wrinkle in the new tax law, which eliminates deductions for moving expenses and as a result could cost government civilians thousands of dollars when transferring overseas or returning stateside.

Here’s betting that won’t stand once lawmakers understand the problem — which is the point, after all.

Good journalism shines a light on bad policies. It exposes unfairness. It rattles the cage and draws attention to problems that need to be fixed. Regurgitating what happened at a hearing or press conference or event isn’t very difficult. Before long, computers will do that automatically. They can already auto-generate news about stock market closings and sports scores. What computers can’t do, however, is dig up news that makes a difference, that affects people’s lives, their children and spouses, their wallets and their security.

Morris’ article on the Chinese phones came about because he asked questions others hadn’t imagined. After learning that intelligence officials had warned smartphones made by China’s Huawei and ZTE posed a security risk, Morris wondered if those phones were sold at military exchanges. When he checked, Morris was surprised to find his hunch confirmed and the phones on display. “I went into the store to make sure it wasn’t just sitting in the window — you have to check that stuff out,” Morris said, ever the careful reporter. “I confirmed they were sold and were popular.”

Within days of his article appearing, Morris was back in the stores, checking to see if anything had changed. Once again, his hunch was on target: The phones were gone. A few phone calls later, he’d confirmed that the phones had been pulled not only from that store, but from all military exchanges worldwide. That’s making a difference.

“You know, military people are busy. They come over here, they want to buy a cellphone, they want it to be inexpensive, and they want it to work,” Morris said. “They would expect that the phone they bought at the PX is safe. They don’t need to be up until 1 a.m. researching this stuff.” Morris figures that’s his job.

Getting policy right — making sure rules are fair, people are cared for, the right thing gets done — is the job of policy makers and bureaucrats. Most of the time, they’re on their own. But when something goes wrong, it’s good to have a watchdog reporter and a newspaper around to focus attention on the problem — and to stir interest and action in getting that fixed.

Tell me what you think — write to me at naegele.tobias@stripes.com.

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