The Washington Legislature convened its 2021 regular session on Monday. Reporters from several news outlets were on hand to keep a public record of what happened, and one or two from the Washington State Wire were among them.
I’ve mentioned the Washington State Wire before, both here and in the Voices of the Free Press newsletter. It isn’t the traditional local free press, but it warrants watching as an innovative step into an uncertain media future.
Newspapers have been holding powerful people accountable and informing the public since before America’s founding. Baseball isn’t the one constant through all the years, newspapers are.
Yet the local free press is more than newspapers. Radio, television and digital platforms are part of a changing, competitive media marketplace in which many sources of news can thrive. Quality varies, and newspapers, with many more decades of delivering reliable journalism, have a leg up on their competitors.
When differentiating types of local free press, it isn’t just about the medium. How news outlets fund their operations also varies. Newspapers primarily rely on a combination of subscribers and advertising, though some are experimenting with other models. Public radio relies on donors, sponsorships and grants. A news website might turn to crowdsourced funding and digital ads.
Then there’s the Washington State Wire, which has its own take on funding.
The Wire might not be the first thing people think of when they think local free press. It doesn’t cover a city or a county, and it doesn’t try to cover as many wide-ranging beats as a typical newspaper. It focuses on state government. That’s enough to keep six staff members writing and editing stories. Because state government can dig its claws into just about anything that happens in Washington, there are plenty of topics to cover.
The Wire also is less deadline-driven than many other news outlets. It’s not a replacement for newspapers and public radio, but a supplement for people who care about what’s happening in Olympia and enjoy getting deep into the weeds.
“We think of ourselves as slow news, like slow food is better than fast food,” Publisher D.J. Wilson said. “Hopefully, we’re more constructive to understanding the basic pieces of good government.”
With independence and unlimited space online, the Wire has the flexibility to dive deep on issues and stories. For example, the journalists there monitor climate change carefully. “If any state in the country is going to figure out how to do greenhouse gas management efficiently, it’s going to be Washington state, or it should be,” Wilson said.
The Wire has a sister organization focused on health care called State of Reform that operates in nine states with plans to add six more in 2021.
Anyone can read the Wire’s stories and subscribe to its newsletter, but its real target audience is power brokers and political insiders. “We exist at the nexus of public policy and the broader economy,” Wilson said.
That doesn’t mean it’s just for the movers and shakers, though. Anyone who wants to understand what’s happening in Olympia — and that should be all Washingtonians — can learn a lot reading Wire stories.
The Wire’s great innovation is its financial model. About 75% of its money comes from registration fees and sponsorships at the annual conference it holds before the new legislative session. Membership contributions provide the rest. Among the listed conference sponsors are the Washington Realtors, Washington Public Utility District Association and Pemco Insurance.
It doesn’t offer subscriptions, and it doesn’t sell advertising. Its website is blessedly free of the advertising that dominates so many news sites. That gives the wire’s journalists a great deal of independence to pursue stories where they go, no matter who might not like it.
“Sometimes we get yelled at by the left, sometimes by the right,” Wilson said. “We’ve been threatened by some caucuses in the Legislature. It ebbs and flows.”
I wish Wilson and his team good fortune not just because their coverage is always useful for monitoring Washington politics, but also because the local free press needs innovators to help it survive. If the Wire succeeds, others might copy its model. There’s plenty of news to go around.