Commentary: Why newspapers matter

Scott Swanson, owner/editor

The title above might seem self-serving, but it reflects an increasing concern in Oregon, and not just for newspaper publishers.

I’ve heard from readers, from government officials, from businesses who are worried about where the state’s newspapers are going.

Writing about the travails of print journalism is definitely not my first or favorite topic choice, but unfortunately, it’s become necessary – particularly in light of the recent closure of the Medford Mail Tribune and, down the road, the 135-year-old Lebanon Express, in the last few weeks.

It’s very sad to see newspapers, many of them owned by large groups whose business models apparently are simply to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their “properties,” disappearing.

It’s also bad – for all of us.

Both the Mail Tribune and the Express were at one time highly regarded newspapers in this state. The Mail Tribune once won a Pulitzer prize, journalism’s highest honor, for exposing local corruption.

Particularly in Medford, a community of 86,000 residents in a county of nearly 225,000 residents, there’s a news desert right now. The only newspaper in that entire county, currently, is the Rogue River Press, which serves a community about the size of Brownsville.

All of that will, no doubt, change because I’m confident there are healthy news organizations that won’t let that opportunity pass by and will step in.

But it illustrates a big problem, not just for those who work at these newspapers, but for the public.

I read a report recently about a survey that found that 87% of current job-seekers with college degrees in journalism wish they had majored in another field.

Wow. Sad. But I think that’s an understandable reflection on the state of the newspaper industry and the complex factors that have contributed to it.

Although I may be biased – I’m speaking from the inside here, I really can’t think of another industry that has been hit so hard on so many sides over the last 20 or 30 years. Except, maybe, timber.

Newspapers have dealt – not always very well – with the rise of competitors in both news reporting and advertising (including those that hijack our news content (Google, Facebook) to sell their own products, the challenges of how to adapt traditional journalistic practices to new technology, and most recently, the printing challenges caused by the aftereffects of COVID, rising fuel prices and the fact that paper mills have found it more profitable to switch to cardboard to meet the demand of online retailers like Amazon.

It hasn’t been boring.

When I read about that survey, I felt like writing a response to those young would-be journalists out there. In fact, I think I will. You’re welcome to listen in:

Dear kids: I’m speaking to you as one who’s been in print journalism for more than 40 years.

Journalism is always challenging. We cover the ups and downs of the communities we serve, sometimes having to tell people things they don’t want to hear. In this business, you’re constantly dealing with negativity, because people are sinners and a lot of what we cover is what they do that’s wrong. It can be uncomfortable, for the writer and for the reader.

When I first started, I knew crusty old editors who were chain-smokers, with bottles of whiskey stashed in their desks.

There was a reason. This is a field that has pitfalls on all sides – legal, moral and social. Negotiating those requires a moral compass that doesn’t buy into relativistic lies we hear today, like “truth is whatever you make it to be.”

Truth (and journalism you should be proud of) is reporting what is really happening in front of you, presented as fairly and objectively as you can make it.

That’s not what some young journalists are being taught today. Many of you are being taught to be advocates. Advocacy certainly has a place in newspapers, but it’s on the opinion page. Trying to report as an advocate can lead to all sorts of complications that I won’t spell out here (given space limitations) that can easily result in slanted, even inaccurate. And my expereince is that newspaper readers don’t appreciate misplaced advocacy, no matter what side of the aisle they’re sitting on.

People don’t just distrust the news media simply because Donald Trump demonized them; many “mainstream media” have brought it on themselves by engaging in unbalanced coverage based on their adopted political idealogies.

Bottom line: You can never be entirely objective, but you can aim to be as fair and balanced as possible in how you tell readers what’s happening in their world. You can talk to both sides, especially the one you don’t agree with.

Complicating your life also is the increase of “news management” by public agencies and corporations. They continually try to increase their control over what we can learn about their activities, which isn’t new. But with the rise in privacy laws (particularly medical) and the fact that they can present their own message any time they want via social media, they have plenty of options to get their message out. So they avoid telling us things we want to know about what they’re doing unless they have to. That makes it harder to do our jobs.

Overcoming these challenges requires effort. Your readers (and editors) still expect you to be accurate, to get your facts straight, which can require a lot of shoe leather, phone calls, reading often-mind-numbing reports.

Then, of course, there’s that added threat of job insecurity brought on by the forces described above. When you’re already working long hours, writing things that can upset readers, and then you have to worry about whether you’re going to get that already not-very-generous paycheck tomorrow – well, your lack of enthusiasm is understandable. Why would anyone want to do this?

Here’s why: Because the public needs quality journalism.

Obviously, that’s not a motivator for just anyone, but it’s one of the reasons why we sit through long meetings, why we chase down those quirky stories, why we make unpleasant phone calls.

Journalists are necessary. Many readers will never attend a City Council or a School Board meeting, even online. I can honestly say I can count on one hand the times in 40 years that I’ve seen a TV or radio reporter at a local public meeting.

But the local newspaper reporter is there, watching and listening, and telling readers what she/he hears and sees.

How long do you think even well-meaning local officials could hold the line if they knew they weren’t being held accountable by the public, through their local newspaper? There are plenty of horror stories out there about what happens when a community becomes a “news desert.”

Some members of the public may not appreciate journalists, but what are they doing to make sure their public officials are telling the truth, doing the right thing?

Newspapers are and will continue to be vital to democracy. If they disappear, the citizens are the losers.

Plus, and here’s the good part, we also get to cover really fun stories. Big achievements. Generous actions. The dog that got lost in Yellowstone and walked all the way home. That kind of stuff.

Yes, newspaper journalism is a demanding business. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s 24/seven (unpleasant public events often happen in the middle of the night). It’s never-ending – there’s always another story that we could (or probably should) chase.

You’re needed, and if you’re a fair and accurate, if you give people a comprensive-as-possible look at what’s happening in their community, they’ll support you.

I speak from experience.