Twenty years ago The Seattle Times assigned a youngish metro reporter to cover Microsoft, amid the historic antitrust case against the software colossus.
That turned out to be an incredible privilege. It gave me a front-row seat to report on the humbling of what was the world’s leading company, its transformation and the rise of new giants in its wake.
It’s also giving me déjà vu as I start another daunting job, as editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press initiative, a national public-service campaign to restore the local news industry.
This is partly a return to business reporting. Coverage areas include newspaper consolidation and disinvestment by absentee owners.
The beat also includes monopolistic practices of those tech giants, which now face their own antitrust scrutiny.
Facebook and Google in particular grew rich on advertising dollars that used to support traditional media. They gained currency partly by using content from struggling newspapers.
This isn’t working out well, as evidenced by the steady rise of division, misinformation and extremism, capped by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Newspapers are part of the cure. Places with decent local papers have less corruption and more engaged and informed citizens.
Those are among topics I’ll address with weekly columns examining press issues and advocating for reforms, particularly in Congress.
I’ll also produce the Times’ free press newsletter, taking over from Chris Trejbal, an Oregon newspaper veteran who has done a great job recently.
The initiative includes a new web site and producing informational materials to track and explain challenges facing the free press and policy solutions.
Times readers may have seen Publisher Frank Blethen’s messages discussing the urgent need to restore the nation’s local free press system. That’s the public side of a remarkable effort to sustain the industry.
We’re among many working on this pressing challenge, including a growing list of academics, public-interest groups, philanthropists and elected representatives. With luck, President-elect Biden will pitch in as well.
I’m lucky to have this opportunity, and any newspaper job at all, really.
Last year, newsroom layoffs nationwide increased nearly 200%, to a record 16,160 jobs lost, according to a Challenger, Gray & Christmas report.
That’s on top of newspapers shedding 51% of their newsroom employees the previous decade, according to Pew Research Center. Midcareer people were especially likely to be cut, and a large share of remaining newsroom jobs are in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Seattle is also lucky, as thousands of communities no longer have a local paper. The newspaper “death rate” averaged about 10 per month from 2004 to 2018, according to the University of North Carolina’s “news desert” tracking.
That death rate jumped to 20 per month in 2019 and 30 per month last year during the pandemic.
No wonder the people of the United States are so divided, unable to agree on facts and susceptible to being duped and whipped into a frenzy by falsehoods.
America’s local free press needs a recovery effort like what’s been done for wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
When people realized these treasured creatures were nearing extinction, bold action was taken to stop the die-off, by declaring them an endangered species.
Then all sorts of work began to preserve and restore the runs. Habitat is steadily being restored, predation is limited and impacts must be mitigated.
Saving these endangered species is complicated, costly and sometimes controversial. Progress is slow and results can be mixed, but there is no other choice. They are not only iconic but critical to the health of their ecosystems.
You may not fish or eat salmon, or read or subscribe to a local newspaper, but you still benefit from their continued existence.
I’ll miss directly holding politicians accountable on the Times editorial board, my previous job.
But my kitchen cabinet was persuasive. Asked if I should take the new job, my daughters said, in effect: “You could help save the Free Press? You should do that, that would be amazing!”