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Another NW port city wonders: How do we keep local news alive?

Legislation, grant funding, collaborations bring hope for sustainability

The Skagit Publishing press in Mount Vernon prints the A section of Cascadia Daily News on its first press run in March 2022.
An issue of Cascadia Daily News rolls off the press in Mount Vernon. A national crisis in local news extends throughout the Northwest, prompting multiple new efforts to turn the tide, notes Kari Borgen, publisher of The Astorian. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Kari Borgen Guest Writer

Community newspapers are in trouble.

Since 2005, more than a quarter of U.S. newspapers have vanished. They have been disappearing at the rate of nine per month nationally, or about two per week. There are more than 200 counties, home to 70 million people, with no local newspaper or news source, according to a 2023 State of Local News report by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

More than a quarter of Oregon’s small-town newspapers have closed in the past 20 years and 68% of Oregon’s incorporated cities, at least 164 municipalities, lack a local news source, according to the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism.

Just in the past two years, newspapers in Silverton, Stayton, Lebanon, Medford and the greater Rogue Valley closed, and we lost the Columbia Press in Warrenton.

Recently, the Newport News-Times and Lincoln City News Guard combined into one weekly paper, as did the Clatskanie Chief and St. Helens Chronicle.

The crisis in local journalism comes at a cost to communities. Areas lacking news coverage also have lower voter turnout, less community engagement and fewer contested political races. It’s no surprise: Misinformation and disinformation are more common where there is no newspaper to provide vetted, sourced information.

A group of concerned citizens recruited a newspaperman to come to Astoria in 1873 and start The Tri-Weekly Astorian because they recognized that the health and stature of the burgeoning community required good information to citizens and to other news organizations.

The loss of local news is a loss to the news ecosystem. Statewide news starts with a local reporter making calls, attending meetings, interviewing stakeholders. Astoria’s founding fathers knew that for Astoria stories to become statewide news, they needed a local newspaper. News services, broadcast media and, yes, even social media rely on our stories.

Residents and businesses rely on local newspapers to tell their stories, to chronicle community history, to share local voices.

So how do we keep local journalism alive?

Legislation

There has been a lot of interest at the federal and state levels in providing help to local news organizations, although not much agreement on what “help” means. Tax credits for your news subscriptions, employment tax breaks to news organizations and creation of funds for news resource centers have all been floated in proposed legislation.

California and Washington state have passed legislation to fund journalists for local newsrooms, boosting reporting resources. Our sister paper in Long Beach, the Chinook Observer, will receive one of Washington’s inaugural Murrow News Fellows, one of eight reporters hired by the state to live in and report on rural communities in Washington. The reporter will live on the peninsula for two years, filling reporting gaps and covering the disadvantaged rural population.

Community-supported journalism and grants

Newspapers like The Salt Lake Tribune have elected to change from for-profit organizations to nonprofit, supported by donations in addition to traditional advertising and subscription revenues. The organization is governed by a nonprofit board of directors, fundraises and functions to fill the need for local news in the community.

Nonprofit news organizations are surging, with the National Trust for Local News acquiring clusters of newspapers in Maine, Colorado and Georgia to operate as nonprofit organizations.

The Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and others have recently formed Press Forward, a nationwide coalition of funders formed to strengthen and invigorate local news.

Other grant programs are available through industry organizations like Report for America, the Knight Foundation and others for reporting resources and training to fill gaps and increase skills in areas like data journalism.

Civic information hubs

There are models emerging across the country described as civic information hubs that consider news as a community amenity just like libraries, parks and public utilities, and are partially supported through the public tax base. Those information hubs may include news organizations, libraries and historic archives.

Collaborations

The Astorian has long collaborated with local and statewide news organizations, including Coast Community Radio, Oregon Public Broadcasting and Pamplin Media Group. More recently, The Astorian participated when the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center organized reporting with 30 other newsrooms around the 2022 Oregon elections.

While the industry is troubled, it’s an opportunity for the transformation of newspapers to a sustainable community news solution for the future.

What can citizens do?

Continue to support the reporter sitting at public meetings, reporting on local government on your behalf, with your subscription. Encourage others in the community to subscribe. If you have a business, advertise.

Kari Borgen is publisher of The Astorian in Astoria, Oregon. This column was previously published in The Astorian and The Seattle Times.

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