Questioning the future of local news
May 17, 2023 at 5:05 a.m.
This week’s game: Pick the Brain of The Editor. Let’s begin:
Q: At a community forum in Mount Vernon this week, you extolled the virtues — and decried the absence of — journalism programs in area high schools as a key way to help “save local news.” What did you have in mind here?
A: The Editor was thinking no one would ever ask! Short version of longer passion project: We were surprised to learn over the past year that many Whatcom and Skagit high schools no longer have journalism-education programs, or even high school newspapers. At Cascadia Daily News we consider the development of young journalists part of our core mission — critical for several reasons in ongoing efforts to “save local news.”
Our main contribution here is providing internships to college students, several of whom mix with our staff at all times. In our experience, the best young journalists filling slots in our internship program are those who entered a collegiate program with prior high school experience.
(Humorous but relevant side note: Yours truly went to a high school that did not have a school newspaper; he started an underground version on his own and reproduced it on school mimeograph equipment by picking a lock to a supply room. News finds a way!)
All too often, we are told, existing school journalism programs reside in the heart and brain of a single instructor who retires, with no one available to pick up the ball and carry it forward. This is a sad phenomenon, but shouldn’t prohibit maintenance of some form of journalism training, especially if community members or, better yet, media professionals are willing to help.
Count us among those.
Our news organization is interested in assisting local schools where school-newspaper desires exist; we're already making connections with one. CDN staff members are very pressed for time doing their jobs, but we’re willing to help the next gen step forward, whether that’s through direct involvement, or just supplying supportive materials, such as access to our news products through our Newspapers in Education program.
Feel free to reach out to me personally to discuss the former, or our General Manager, Staci Baird, for the latter.
Q: Speaking of that forum. The League of Women Voters of Washington, whose Skagit chapter sponsored it, has produced an authoritative study on the demise of local news. It paints a dire picture. Is there any hope of reversing the trend of local news sources dying on the vine, creating vast swaths of “news deserts” across the country, particularly in rural areas?
A: Damn straight, there is hope. But it won’t happen without community members stepping up to help “news find its way” by supporting local news orgs, on a town-by-town basis. Professional journalism by nature is labor-intensive and time-consuming, therefore somewhat expensive, even at the steerage-class salaries usually offered to journalists.
What that means to the survival question is simple: You get what you pay for, and if you’re not willing to pay for news, you’re going to be spoon-fed “sponsored content” either in fact or by name, or straight-up propaganda. Both stoke the engines of current antisocial media channels.
Our publication is a unicorn in the sense that its owner has decided to essentially front-fund a broad-based news product to show what’s possible, with the hope that the community will step up, support the cause through subscriptions, and ensure its long-term viability. In other words: We’re a fiercely independent, fully locally owned enterprise that exists to make money to support the production of journalism, not line the pockets of ownership. Any profit that might one day be shown here goes back into the work.
Other enterprises seeking to fill the void are approaching the same problem from the other side, starting small, nonprofit enterprises (such as the local Salish Current), and hoping, likewise, that community support will help them grow into something more robust. Both approaches are valid and worthy of support.
Locally, those efforts have produced, for now, a remarkable result: Northwest Washington, which hung on the edge of “news desert” status as recently as a couple years ago, is not a news desert, thanks to local citizens who have cared enough to step up. Crops are sprouting.
Daily waterings have staved off desert status here — for now. We should all take a moment to appreciate that fact; it is a credit to a local news audience that understands the critical role local news plays in protecting representative democracy. Without that, we wouldn’t even be attempting what’s underway at CDN.
But the stark fact is that a strong start is insufficient to change the overall news-industry climate. CDN and other enterprising local startups are making progress, but still nowhere close to achieving the level of community financial support necessary to maintain them permanently, let alone expand them for greater civic impact.
We constantly hear from community members who love our product, which means the world to us. But we also find that many have yet to find the time or inclination to support it by subscribing. Part of that is on us; as a new organization playing Whac-A-Mole with various startup challenges, we haven’t found a path to market ourselves broadly in our first year. That’s about to change.
But it won’t fundamentally alter the big picture, nor the underlying challenge: To survive and thrive, local news needs to be treated here as what it really is — a cause.
In my long experience, this engaged, enlightened, compassionate community has rarely failed to step up to those. I'm not a person who walks around dispensing ungrounded optimism. But for that reason alone, I remain bullish on the future of local news in the NW corner.
Ron Judd's column appears on Wednesdays; firstname.lastname@example.org; @roncjudd.