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. Previously I talked about how journalism keeps authority accountable and plays a role in meeting Public Information Needs. In this post, I will talk about how local journalism helps build and support community.
Local Journalism Helps Build and Support Community
In addition to sharing useful information and providing accountability and watchdog reporting, local media also helps empower communities by reflecting their experience and encouraging participation in local and civic life.
Research from Poindexter et al. (2006) and Heider et al. (2005) found that readers were keen for local media to act as a “good neighbor” even more so than being a “watchdog,” although both types of activities remain important.
This can be particularly true in a crisis, when local media continues to often be the leading—and sometimes sole—reliable information source for a community.
In the Pacific Northwest, one high-pro le example of this type of coverage came from the Methow Valley News (Twisp, Washington) in 2014, when the biggest wild re in Washington state history shut down the power in the town of Twisp, where the paper is based.
This meant no internet. No cell phone coverage. And a paucity of reliable information.
I realized with surreal clarity that if I wanted to do my job, I’d have to get out of the valley. And no journalist wants to leave the scene of the story,” publisher Don Nelson recalled.
After initially decamping to Seattle, Nelson and the paper’s designer, Darla Hussey, began using Facebook to capture—and share—the latest news.
They later returned to the town with a borrowed generator to focus on putting out the paper. Sharing files on flash drives, as their network was down, the team produced copy that a sales associate drove 100 miles through the re-zone to print.
“Our attitude,” publisher Don Nelson later recounted, “from the moment the power faded, was not whether we would make a newspaper, but how.”
“Nelson saw their duty as two-fold,” Mike Wallberg wrote on the IVOH (Images & Voice of Hope) website: “To relay important safety and other re- related news to affected residents, and to provide an uninterrupted presence to folks who have come to see the paper as an integral element of the community.”
These sentiments continue to drive activity at local media outlets across the United States, and not just in times of crisis.
One clear way local media helps to build and support a sense of community is through day-to-day reporting and campaigning on issues that matter.
The Eugene Register-Guard (Oregon), which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, is currently embarking on a yearlong project tackling homelessness. As in many cities across the region, this is an important issue. Around 3,000 people, including large numbers of students and young people, are homeless in Eugene at any given time.
Further north, in Washington State, the Seattle Times launched “Under Our Skin” in
June 2016 “as part of an effort to deepen public discussion and understanding of race.” The initiative featured 18 videos, guest essays, and opportunities—online and offline—for readers and members of the community to offer their reflections on race, policing, and equality. The Seattle Times shared some of these reflections, while the series
also provoked discussions in other spaces about the issues raised.
The University of Washington’s football coach, Chris Petersen, invited one contributor to the series, Bishop Greg Rickel, to talk to his team about race and racism. As Adam Jude, a Seattle Times staff reporter, noted, this conversation wasn’t always comfortable, not least because “Rickel grew up as a white Southerner and describes himself as a ‘recovering racist.’”
“It definitely made us uncomfortable—it’s an uncomfortable topic for everyone,” Jude quotes Greg Gaines, a sophomore defensive tackle. “But I liked it. He forced us to think like real men.”
Talking about the series, the Seattle Times’ managing editor at the time, Jim Simon, indicated that the initiative was “a powerful thing” that played an important role in building relationships with new audiences and finding a fresh way to build community engagement.
“All the data we had showed that it gets audiences that we don’t normally hit,” he said. “It didn’t do so great among our typical audience, but it hit a lot of other audiences.”
Although audiences, in many cases, are declining, local news remains important—especially for older demographics.
Local television news continues to make a difference to the communities
it serves. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, “57% of U.S. adults often get TV based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three.”
Newspapers, radio, and online channels also remain important news and information sources. Collectively, they help to hold authority to account, share valuable public information, and shine a spotlight on communities and local issues.
As we shall see, local outlets are responding to the challenges in front of them in a number of ways as they seek to reinvent themselves for the digital age. This includes using new platforms for storytelling and distribution, exploring new revenue models, and re-examining the type of journalism they produce.
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.