Last week’s column about the Yakima Herald-Republic’s press closure prompted lots of provocative feedback.
I replied directly to readers but want to share the dialogue here as well. Each person who took time to write probably represents others with similar questions.
My answers may not appease those frustrated with their local paper or the press in general.
But it’s important to have these conversations, especially when we’re urging the public and policymakers to support local news organizations.
Federal support is a big ask and needs broad support, which isn’t easy when the country is sharply divided and a majority of Americans distrust “the media,” according to Gallup polling.
Local news is viewed differently, however. Surveys find trust in local outlets higher than overall media and national outlets.
That was especially so during the crisis last year. Nearly half of Americans turned to local outlets for Covid-19 news, Pew Research found, and The Seattle Times saw record audience and digital-subscription growth.
Several of those losing trust wrote last week. An edited sample:
Q: The news and editorials printed by The Seattle Times and their affiliates are not about the readership that subscribe and advertise to your papers but rather the liberal agenda. To subscribe or advertise in the Times is akin to having the conservatives fund your paper while the news and opinions are all liberal leaning, a model that is counterintuitive.
A: Appealing to readers across the political spectrum is important for newspapers to survive, and it’s getting harder because so many people are so partisan nowadays.
I’ve also been outraged by editorials and news stories I’ve read in various papers. It’s wrong, though, to say our news and editorials all have a liberal agenda. People on the left regularly accuse us of having a right-wing, conservative agenda, and they’re also wrong. Newspapers aren’t always perfect, and there is always room for improvement, but the mainstream ones strive for objectivity in their news stories.
If people don’t want to subscribe for political reasons, so be it. But they’ll probably end up with little to no local news coverage. Research has found communities without papers see government costs rise, because there’s less accountability and higher risk of fraud. To me that’s a strong conservative argument for sustaining local papers and the overall service they provide.
Q: This is the owner/company that opposes pretty much every single tax increase, but now wants tax credits and public grants?! I generally share the concern about the demise of the free press, but y’all should be ashamed of yourselves for the hypocrisy and class-based insensitivity of this coverage.
A: I don’t agree with your characterization. Which recent ballot measures calling for tax increases were opposed by The Times editorial board? (Answer: none of them.) Your note does balance out emails from people saying we don’t deserve support because of our constant liberal bias.
Q: The rumors I hear are that The Times organization is quite profitable. Is that true?
A: No. The company has not paid out any dividends for more than a decade. Its owners have kept the business afloat by liquidating their commercial real estate and investing all the proceeds into The Times for technology and to sustain as many news jobs as possible.
The next time someone asks that last question, I may refer them to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s October report on the crisis in local journalism. Drawing on multiple industry sources, it said overall newspaper revenue declines since 2000 are approaching 70%.
That corresponds to less reporting. Across Washington state, 67% of newsroom jobs were lost since 2005.
So there are more voters getting less reporting and accountability journalism about their much larger government.
These trends point to a disaster for democracy, which depends on an informed electorate.
Newspapers aren’t perfect or blameless. They were caught short by disruptive changes in the market. Mistakes happen and on any given day, some won’t like a story, angle or headline.
Newspapers generally strive to quickly correct mistakes and continually improve. Especially now that they’re seeking public support and struggling to retain subscribers, they have to take seriously perceptions of bias and do their best to reflect the diversity of their communities.
At the same time, I encourage critics to think about the overall service newspapers provide and why that must be sustained.
I really appreciate those able to reconcile their support for local news with frustration over a particular story, approach to a topic or even entire publications can bring.
They are in good company.
One of America’s greatest press supporters, Thomas Jefferson, could be exasperated by what he read in the paper.
In 1787, Jefferson famously wrote “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Later in life, Jefferson regularly groused about newspapers. In 1809 he wrote to a friend that he would stop reading them, “they are so false & so intemperate that they disturb tranquillity without giving information.”
Imagine if he had email and @Monticello43 could post comments on stories online.
Keep sending feedback and questions. They are always welcome, even the intemperate ones.