Journalists interviewed for the Agora report consistently articulated that, despite the pressures and uncertainties their sector faces, core journalistic values and purposes still matter and positively influence the work they do.
Interviewees identified three key reasons local journalism remains important in the Pacific Northwest and beyond:
1. Holding Authority to Account
Accountability remains at the heart of the journalistic mission. This is just as true at the local level as it is for regional, national, and international journalists. For Mark Zusman, editor and publisher of Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon), changes across the media landscape—including the reduced number of journalists and the shuttering of titles—mean that this essential function of the Fourth Estate is potentially at risk. As he explains:
The declining enrolment of journalists who are on a payroll in this country … creates an environment that is just a breeding ground for the kinds of corruption, bad deeds that are desperately in need of the kind of watchdog journalism which is in decline.
Zusman’s focus is perhaps not surprising. His paper was the first weekly to win a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and it was also the first newspaper to win a Pulitzer for a story first published online, Nigel Jaquiss’ investigation revealing how a former Oregon governor had concealed sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl over a 30-year period.
The need for watchdog reporting, Zusman argues, has never been greater.
It’s very clear to me that the trend lines, both in terms of employment and the strength of local journalism institutions, is such that I think we’re creating an environment in which the potential for corruption and misdeeds has never been greater because of the lack of watchdogs on a local level, not on a national or a federal level.
Despite a challenging economic backdrop—in 2015, advertising revenues at seven publicly traded newspaper companies in the United States fell by 7.8 percent, the largest annual decline since the Great Recession —journalists across the Pacific Northwest continue to deliver hard-hitting, impactful journalism on a regular basis.
The Oregonian notes:
…Davis led more than 100 records requests in all 50 states and amassed more than 23,000 pages of records, that led to the creation of a one-of-a-kind national database of contaminated armories…. Some of the worst lead problems in the nation were detected in Oregon.
In the same month, the Northwest News Network—a collaboration of public radio stations broadcasting in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho —produced the powerful four-part audio series “Suicide Behind Bars,” which explored the surge in inmate suicides found across Washington’s prison system in 2014— 2015.
“During those two years,” reporter Austin Jenkins noted, “11 inmate deaths were ruled suicides, giving Washington one of the highest prison suicide rates in the country.”
These in-depth investigative pieces sit alongside the more day-to-day watchdog and accountability work that journalists across the region continue to produce every day.
This is an extract from a new report on the evolution of local journalism in the Pacific Northwest, published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon.