In 2020, an in-depth KUOW investigation discovered that Seattle Public Schools allowed teachers who harmed students to remain in the classroom. After reporter Ann Dornfeld’s story published, SPS removed three teachers from classrooms. Another KUOW investigation on the lack of tailored remote instruction for students with disabilities during COVID-19 led to a January 2021 federal probe into SPS.
Public media stations such as KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, Seattle’s nonprofit NPR news station, are even more critical today as “news deserts” spread across the nation — 200 counties don’t have a local newspaper, and half of all counties only have one newspaper, according to research from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Even Washington state’s newspapers have decreased from 22 to 19 between 2004 and 2019.
Why local reporting matters
Local reporting provides actionable information saving lives, from deadly heat waves to pandemics.
“During the early days of the pandemic, our team of journalists and reporters adjusted resources to increase the output of lifesaving COVID-19 related information and resources,” says KUOW spokeswoman Michaela Gianotti. A pandemic-focused blog reported daily updates on vaccine developments and deadlines, school closures, case rates and emerging scientific consensus.
During the summer 2021 heat wave that sent thousands to Washington emergency rooms, local reporters provided essential information, including road updates, cooling center locations, and at-home DIY cooling tips on a fast-paced blog. It was critical, actionable information during one of the deadliest weather-related events in Washington state history.
Temperatures soared over 100 degrees, buckled roads, withered crops and killed off shellfish. After the heat passed, local reporters shared community members’ personal stories and learned lessons from emergency-response agencies.
“The biggest threat to a vibrant democratic society is the absence of local news,” says Zaki Hamid, KUOW’s director of community engagement. “Without it, there is no one to question the people in power, misinformation and disinformation can thrive, and the public would have a harder time finding the information they need to stay safe and healthy.”
Many communities, many voices
Reflecting and understanding diverse local landscapes requires local reporting grounded in this deep sense of community.
“Something we talk about a lot is the concept of ‘active invitation.’ We must be an active player in engaging the community at every stage of the reporting process, rather than waiting for folks to weigh in,” Hamid says.
KUOW staff reach out beyond the station walls to discover questions and uncover topics. In 2020, the station ran an “If I Were Mayor” series based on voters’ questions for mayoral candidates. Newsroom staff uses the messaging tool Groundsource to text questions and requests for comments to a group of opt-in listeners. In response to numerous questions about recycling, reporter Anna Boiko-Weyrauch took 12 listeners on a Woodinville recycling center tour to sort out answers.
KUOW’s Community Engagement team amplifies lesser-heard voices from communities around the region, gathers feedback and ideas, and creates new opportunities to bridge the newsroom and communities. For example, the station hosted meetings with their journalists at King County libraries and invited community members to join staff for informal dinner conversations and discussions on news topics in past years. Even COVID-19 didn’t dampen the two-way conversations — the dinner parties and journalist conversations just moved online.
“From these efforts, we get not just ideas for new stories, but new sources, new angles, new voices, and even new colleagues,” Hamid says, noting that a recent hire was introduced at a KUOW journalist happy hour.
Training the next generation of journalists creates a pipeline of diverse voices from Puget Sound communities to the airwaves. KUOW’s youth media program RadioActive works with teens aged 15-18. Alongside KUOW professionals, teens learn about journalism, audio recording and editing, scriptwriting, and on-air speaking. Almost 600 young people take youth journalism and radio storytelling workshops at more than 25 schools and community organizations each year.
Recent RadioActive stories have included a son sharing his father’s use of a guitar to overcome challenges as a teen immigrant from Guatemala and a teen’s experience within the foster care system. Young workshop grads have used newfound talents to launch careers in journalism.
After all, it’s never too early to create the infrastructure for upcoming reporters and listeners. “An informed public makes our community stronger. Local reporting is essential to building a better future here in our community,” Hamid says. “It holds power to account, protects our democracy, and ensures our community is empowered with the information they need to make the best decisions possible.”
KUOW is Seattle’s NPR news station, serving the Puget Sound community for 70 years. Our independent, nonprofit newsroom produces award-winning stories, podcasts, events and more.