For the past few months, I’ve shared stories about the perilous state of the local free press in these columns. I’ve written about what the decline of strong local reporting will mean for democracy. And I’ve suggested ways that newspapers might reinvent themselves and the government might help save this struggling industry.
An astute email from reader Hilary Hilscher reminded me that I’d left out a big piece of the puzzle.
“I’ve read your columns in The Seattle Times with great interest and, of course, total agreement with the need to preserve the free press if democracy is to continue,” she wrote. “However, I get to the end of each piece with the question, ‘Now what? What action can I take to help?’ “
What, indeed? Here are some things that anyone who cares about vibrant local reporting can do.
Subscribe: Subscribing is the easiest way to support the local free press. Your subscription helps in two ways. First, the money goes straight to the publication to help pay for reporters, editors and photographers. Second, advertisers track subscription numbers and are more likely to pay for an advertisement when they think more people will see it.
Consider a print subscription, too, even if you read mostly online. More eyes on the physical newspaper draw more print ads whose revenue newspapers don’t need to share with Google or Facebook.
Get a subscription for someone else: Know someone who loves to follow the news and debate current events? Get him or her a gift subscription. It has all the benefits of your own subscription with the additional benefit of reminding someone just how valuable the local free press is.
Buy a subscription for a school or library. Help make the news accessible to students and people who otherwise might not have access.
Place an advertisement: Businesses that place ads in local newspapers know that they are reaching local readers. Ads aren’t just for business, though. Anyone with a message to share can buy an ad. Celebrate someone’s success. Send well wishes.
And tell local businesses that you learned about them or their sales from the ad they placed in the newspaper. They’ll be more inclined to take out another one in the future.
Make a donation: Few local news sources are nonprofits, but that doesn’t mean they won’t accept your financial gift. In fact, Patrick Grubb, publisher of two community newspapers that I wrote about last week, followed up with some good news.
“To be honest, we’ve been so busy the last few weeks that our interview slipped from my mind,” he wrote. “I was reminded of it by the arrival of a handwritten letter containing a very large check from a reader of The Seattle Times. She wrote that she had never read any of our publications but wanted to support local newspapers.”
Thank you, mystery reader, for supporting community journalism in Washington.
Even if you’re not the sort who cuts checks, consider making another kind of donation. Call an editor and ask if you can send some pizza over around deadline time — if the staff is not working remotely. Reporters have tough jobs, especially during these uncertain times for the industry. A surprise pizza break can boost morale tremendously.
Engage with your local free press: Speaking of journalists’ morale, share your thoughts with reporters and editors. Send an email or comment online not just when you’re angry but also when you read something really good. Tell the people who brought you the story that you appreciate it.
Before you fire off an angry missive, think about how you frame it. Rather than call someone an idiot or worse (you should see some of the emails I get each week), offer constructive criticism. Suggest alternative sources for the next story.
And contact us when there’s something newsworthy going on. Journalists aren’t omniscient. We rely on people to send in tips so that we can get on top of stories that matter to the community.
Tell elected officials that the local free press is a priority: At all levels of politics, elected officials tend to listen to their vocal constituents. Send an email to a senator or a representative urging them to support legislation that would bolster the free press. Call your city council member and remind them that the best way to reach the public is through the local news. Ask candidates where they stand on supporting the local news media.
I’ll keep Hilscher’s admonition in mind in the future and suggest more ways that readers can help save the free press. In return, I hope that you will continue reading; that you’ll share the compelling, interesting and exciting stories you find in the newspaper; and that you’ll always mention that you saw it first in the local free press.