Three things happened in Chapel Hill last week: University Mall announced that Silverspot Cinemas would be replacing Dillard’s; UNC named Joel Curran the new vice chancellor for communications and public affairs; and it actually snowed for a little while.

Here’s my thesis: all three are connected to a single development—a rather disturbing one—that’s plaguing modern journalism. Read on…

If you’ve ever been to our on-air studio at WCHL, you know it’s a pretty small room, with no view of the outside world, in a building set far away from any actual street.

How do we report on traffic?

Truth is, when I’m on the air, there’s no earthly way for me to know firsthand what’s happening on I-40—or, heck, Weaver Dairy for that matter. Occasionally we send someone out to drive around and report back in, if there’s a flood or a snowstorm or something serious. But those are special days. Beyond that, we have to rely on reports we get from other people: Triangle Traffic on Twitter, for instance, or listeners like you. (That’s why we’re always so insistent about asking for “Road Warriors.”)

Same goes for weather, to a point. It snowed a little bit last week, right in the middle of our afternoon newscast—but where was it snowing, and when? We’d gotten the general Orange County forecast from the National Weather Service, and we were monitoring radar throughout—but when the system came through and it started alternating between rain and snow, we had to rely on firsthand reports from listeners (“snow warriors,” as Rachel Nash put it) to tell us where, specifically, it was snowing at a given moment. (Especially when the radar kept insisting there was nothing but rain.)

I mention this because it’s a good illustration of how journalism works in general, for better or worse. All the events we cover take place outside the newsroom, and those who report the news are almost never the ones who make the news—journalistic ethics, you know—so there’s always an extent to which we’re relying on other people to tell us what’s going on.

That’s always been true.

But nowadays it’s compounded by several potentially disturbing trends.

Especially now in the Internet age, people feel increasingly entitled to get their news for free—which makes it harder for news outlets to generate revenue, which leads in turn to staff cuts. (The recession certainly didn’t help.) Newspapers have been hardest hit by this—especially since they always relied on charging consumers directly, as TV and radio never did—but it’s affected every medium, and news outlets everywhere now make do with the bare minimum in staff. (Our news department’s been lucky—we haven’t had to deal much with staff cuts—but we’ve always operated with a pretty small staff to begin with.)

Several consequences. First: a newsroom with a bare-bones staff becomes even less able to go out and cover newsworthy events firsthand. (We encounter this sometimes at WCHL—on nights when, say, the Central West steering committee is meeting at the same time as a Rosemary Imagined event.)  But second, and even more important: a newsroom that reduces itself to a bare-bones staff loses its ability to engage in investigative journalism. Investigative reporting is an endeavor that requires time and resources and manpower; in the absence of all three, it becomes impossible.

Both of those consequences amount to the same thing: even more than ever before, news departments have to rely on what they’re told—often without digging deeper or probing further.

The existence of Twitter actually compounds this too, because it means that newsworthy events get reported instantaneously—which reduces the amount of time a newsroom has to put together a story. Forget hard-boiled investigation—at that speed, even basic fact-checking goes out the window. Which is how CNN could mistakenly report that the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act, when in fact they’d upheld it—or how news outlets across the country could blithely retweet the mistake, since they’d heard it from a ‘credible source’ like CNN. It’s also how a TV station in California could end up falling for a prank and reporting that the pilot in July’s Asiana Airlines crash was named “Sum Ting Wong.” (In that case the station actually did do some fact-checking: they called the National Transportation Safety Board, where the name was confirmed by an intern who wasn’t really paying attention.) It’s true that news outlets get criticized for rushing on-air with “information” that turns out to be false—but at least the critics will keep tuning in. If you don’t rush on the air with something, people will simply stop listening to you.

All of which adds up to the same thing: forced to operate with a bare-bones staff, under increasingly tight time constraints, news departments are less and less capable of doing the deep digging on their own. More and more, they have to depend on what they’re told. (This is partly why CNN, for instance, is relying more on “I-reporters,” regular folks who send in videos of events. It also explains the rise of “churnalism,” news stories that are either partly or entirely cut-and-pasted from some organization’s press release.)

That’s trend number one.

But trend number two makes it even worse…

Part II to follow tomorrow. Stay tuned.