Four decades ago at this time of year, the Idaho Legislature was, as it is now, nearing its close. It was a different legislature then, and a different corps of news reporters covered it.
My legislative directory from the 1981 session (yes, I’ve kept it after all these years) included, as the directories have before and since, lists of the news organizations accredited to cover the legislature. The 1981 list included two wire services, nine newspapers (Moscow, Idaho Falls, Nampa, Pocatello, Lewiston, Twin Falls, Meridian and two from Boise), four television stations from the Boise area (including Idaho Public Television) and four radio stations.
The directory from this year’s session includes fewer in each of these categories (except television stations, which are organized and affiliated differently). Fewer reporters from these organizations are full-time at the Statehouse, and overall probably spend fewer reporting hours there.
Except . . . I left something out of that newer listing that wasn’t in the old one, a new type of news organization: The non-profit.
The Idaho Statehouse for some years has seen energetic work from the Idaho Education News, a web-only news service which specifically covers education issues in the state but also keeps a close eye on legislative activities. A nonprofit organization staffed by experienced journalists, it has done a highly creditable job. Skeptics at the start noted that major funding came from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which had an interest in a number of education issues. But the IEN operation has proven itself as reliable, independent and a highly useful information source. (Disclosure: I make use of some of its reports for one of my publications.)
It offers some precedential hope, for people interested in seeing more public affairs reporting in Idaho, and for another non-profit news organization that started just last week, in time to catch the tail end of the current legislative session: The Idaho Capital Sun.
Allied with a group of nonprofit state-level news organizations around the country, the Sun describes itself as Idaho’s “newest nonprofit news organization delivering accountability journalism on state politics, health care, tax policy, the environment and more.” Its editor is Christina Lords, who until not long ago edited the Idaho Statesman daily newspaper, and others on staff also have newspaper backgrounds. Lords described the organization as “a small — but mighty — team of experienced Idaho journalists interested in diving into these issues and more as Idaho’s newest nonprofit online journalism outlet. We’re a part of our parent organization, States Newsroom, which has outlets in 20 other states, including our neighbors Montana and Nevada.”
This Idaho development is part of an under-reported national trend. Non-profit news gathering is growing, while for-profit news gathering has been shrinking in size (notwithstanding recent expansions in some places, like the Adams newspapers in southern Idaho). That carries pluses and minuses, but the differences can be subtle. Both are reliant on their income sources - chiefly donors for one, advertisers for the other - and could be subject to external influences.
But the new organizations also come with a lot of potential. The Sun, for example, gives as its purpose “relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans.” That’s specifically what the people who set it up and lead it expect of it, which is much more ambitious than most of Idaho’s (or other) traditional news organizations can say.
A lot will depend now on how many people read it and contribute to it. The Sun and its kin have a significant challenge.
The press corps is changing, but some of the changes may help make up in years to come for some of what we’ve lost. At least, we have some improving grounds for thinking so.