These can look like dark days for news reporting, and for our ability to keep track of and hold accountable those in power, who we most need to keep on a leash.
There are serious economic pressures, a dynamic underway for a generation now; business crunches that have wiped out massive segments of local and regional news reporting. Journalism in New York (mostly) and Washington, and other top centers, goes on. Beyond those places, far less of it is happening today than did a few decades ago.
There are newer political pressures, some of them coming from endless attempts from the White House to call out “fake news” that isn’t fake at all, in the perverse declaration of the press -- the best protector most of us have from the powers that be -- as the “enemy of the people.”
But under that, almost in the shadows, there are signs of hope. One is the nationwide uprising of newspaper editorials this last week, reflected in Idaho among other places, explaining just why an independent and free press really is important.
This message happened to be magnified for me, on a Northwest level, this week.
About five years ago a former colleague, Steve Bagwell (now a newspaper editor at McMinnville, Oregon), and I co-wrote a book, titled New Editions, about the Northwest’s newspapers, their history, present, and future. This week we were asked to revisit that in an interview for an article on a regional press, to bring up to date some of what we found in our research back then. It brought us to consider a more recent summing up.
We found, five years ago, that while the newspaper scene tended to be reduced to a stereotype of “bleak,” the actual picture is more complex. We found that the reality of newspapers and journalism, their condition and vitality, actually varies a lot between regions, types of communities, types of newspapers. That much seems to be just as true today. Not many definitive lines of description apply to all newspaper journalism.
Overall through the ‘00’s, many newspapers seemed to be crashing, to the point that trend lines (and many prognosticators) suggested most might not be around for long, that the print newspaper was close to extinction. But trend lines are often disrupted; the future isn’t so easily predictable. In the years since 2012, the newspaper industry, while still enduring hard time, has to a great degree stabilized at a smaller level. Layoffs have continued and news coverage is down. But those newspapers that were supposed to disappear en masse? Most are still there.
There are also counter-indicators.
One (the subject of a recent column) in Idaho is the growth of the Nampa Idaho Press newspaper organization, the expansion of coverage, hiring of new staff - what looks like an explosion of confidence in the future of newspapering.
A few miles across the Oregon line at the small town of Vale, look at the case of the Malheur Enterprise, a small, struggling weekly newspaper. Well, it used to be struggling. Now, under new owner Les Zaitz, a former Portland Oregonian investigative reporter, it not only is breaking important stories week after week, gaining not just local but even national attention, but it also is growing rapidly in circulation, adding staff and apparently prospering. Zaitz is now in the process of starting a new hard-news digital publication covering the state, based at Salem.
I should mention my own digital publication, the Idaho Weekly Briefing, which has been expanding and is working on its own new business model (involving online crowdfunding).
The times are difficult for journalism, and for people who want to follow serious news reporting. But hard times can make for some of the most creative solutions.