An extraordinary effort to save local journalism in the Yakima Valley, backed by Microsoft and local supporters, is taking off this year.
The Yakima Free Press campaign aims to raise at least $1 million annually for several years to sustain and grow essential news coverage as the local-news business evolves. If successful, that will start with adding four reporters at the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper, which will provide free online access to their stories.
A group of local leaders is working with the Herald-Republic and the Yakima Valley Community Foundation to raise the funds. Donations go to the foundation, which will provide grants to support the local news ecosystem.
“Given some luck I think we can do it,” said Kristin Kershaw Snapp, a member of a longtime Yakima farming family who until recently chaired the foundation board.
Snapp said the local newspaper is “an essential part of a community.”
“When you lose that you lose all kinds of things,” she said. “Not only is the community worse off, the country is worse off. I don’t think any of us want to see that.”
For Microsoft, the Yakima campaign expands a company initiative to sustain journalism, which it sees as both a civic duty and a way to support communities and democracies where its products are sold.
Microsoft President Brad Smith last year wrote about the foundational role of local news outlets and said their precipitous decline “is a defining issue of our time that goes to the heart of our democratic freedoms.”
News is also part of the tech ecosystem, Smith wrote, “and all of us who participate in this ecosystem have both an opportunity and responsibility to help journalism flourish. In short, tech companies need to do more.”
The Yakima project stands out among a flurry of recent philanthropic efforts to revive local news coverage, most of which are focused on metro areas. It seeks to provide quality coverage in a largely rural and diverse region with above-average poverty.
While the entire country is suffering from the journalism crisis, rural and poorer communities are especially hard hit. They particularly need the local advocacy and increased civic engagement that local news provides, as well as accountability journalism to reduce corruption and hold officials accountable.
A prime example was the Herald-Republic’s recent coverage of a Toppenish school superintendent whose son and daughter-in-law are being investigated for alleged inappropriate behavior with students, said Casey Corr, a former Seattle Times reporter living in Yakima and involved with the local campaign.
“I can’t see that kind of reporting being done in the Yakima Valley by any other existing entity,” Corr said.
“There are many things that newspapers do that we take for granted, they cover everything from food recipes to comic strips to politics to sports … so I will complain as much as anybody when I’m unhappy about my daily newspaper, but I sure wouldn’t want to live without one.”
The Seattle Times bought the Yakima paper in 1991 and is looking for ways to sustain what’s become a money-losing operation.
After the Yakima paper lost 30% of its ad revenue during the pandemic, The Times last year put the Yakima paper’s building up for sale, shifted printing to its Walla Walla Union-Bulletin plant and reduced non-newsroom staff by about 50 positions.
Microsoft engaged in late 2020 when it launched a journalism initiative that’s since provided grants and training to outlets in Yakima; Fresno, California; Jackson, Mississippi; Appleton, Wisconsin; and El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.
In Yakima, Microsoft initially donated $275,000, helping several outlets. That enabled the Herald-Republic to do important investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous people, declining health care services and the Yakama Nation’s justice system.
Now the company is backing two new pilot projects, in hopes of developing sustainable, locally supported models that can be replicated in other places that lost or are losing local reporting.
In Fresno, the company is supporting the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, an effort led by the James B. McClatchy Foundation to sustain and grow reporting throughout the agricultural region.
Yakima’s project is focused on building reporting capacity, generating a critical mass of local support and broadening access to essential news and information. Microsoft is providing $250,000 to continue its previous support and help launch the Yakima campaign.
After the four reporters are hired, the plan is to hire a parallel team of bilingual reporters to produce stories in Spanish as well as English. The Yakima Herald-Republic also publishes a Spanish edition called El Sol.
Executive Editor Greg Halling aims to have the four hired around midyear, covering agriculture, health care, public safety, and social and economic issues. Two are being placed by Report for America, a nonprofit service program that places emerging journalists in newsrooms. They’ll join a 24-person Yakima newsroom including six reporters.
For context, four reporters is comparable to or larger than the reporting teams at many of the “ghost” papers now operating in much of the country. These are outlets barely covering their communities after being eviscerated by the industry’s contraction and consolidation by extractive Wall Street firms.
“It’s a very tough business,” Corr said, “but the transmission of ideas, debate, information, even advertising, is vital to an informed society.”
Indeed. To learn more and support the Yakima campaign, visit YakimaHerald.com/FreePress.