‘Conflict’ vs. ‘interest.’ Or: When journalist Ron Judd writes about journalism

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AS A JOURNALIST, the least-comfortable assignment is one that involves yourself, or your employer. Most of the time, in fact, those conflicts are studiously avoided — journalists generally don’t write, edit or photograph stories about matters with which we or family members are personally involved — for sound ethical reasons about appearances of conflict.

One exception is coverage of media, which, of course, presents an unavoidable potential conflict: not only a news staff reporting on its own company and its competitors, but sources being asked to opine on their own news operations. It’s a bit squishy, and nobody really likes it. We can’t be completely objective about our own company, and don’t claim to be. But in this week’s cover story, we tried to be as fair as possible in evaluating its unavoidable role in the local media landscape.

These ethical considerations might be one reason that journalism enterprises — clearly, regardless of one’s opinion about them, important local institutions — fail to get the sort of scrutiny or analysis afforded to other topics. At Pacific NW, a meeting last year about our magazine’s current theme — the rapid change in the Seattle area in the defining past decade — led to just such a discussion: How has the local media landscape over that period changed, and in what ways? For better or worse? How has society been affected by those changes?

Clearly, this was bound to be in part a downer story about downfalls: the sheer reduction in numbers of local journalists, mirroring national trends, due to the economic tumult in the media industry. Our story reflects that, chronicling dramatic changes that, when viewed as a whole, are alarming. But we also hope to counter that image by exploring a handful of local startups that seek to fill what everyone interviewed for the piece agrees are gaps in local news coverage.

One of the clear themes of the story is corporate takeovers of once-family-owned enterprises, and one of those provided an interesting, albeit unintentional example of community consequences. We originally sought to highlight some “survivors” of downsizings and consolidations. One of those is veteran reporter Susannah Frame of KING-TV, who — along with colleague Chris Ingalls — carries on, in admirable fashion, a long tradition of quality investigative journalism that used to be one of the hallmarks of Channel 5 in its heyday, under ownership of the Bullitt family.

Hours before our visit with her at KING’s studios, Frame was informed that Tegna Media, which owns the station, was declining permission for her to speak to The Times. We turned instead to longtime TV reporter Enrique Cerna, on the day of his retirement from KCTS, instead. He needed no permission to give his insightful views on local media. And the story took a different tack.