Remembering why we are here, six years into LL

The first week of October was the 81st annual National Newspaper Week, a recognition of the service of newspapers and their employees across North America.
Like a lot of similar celebratory events one can find on the calendar, its goal is to spotlight an issue or celebrate something, in this case the role newspapers play in our nation. For me as a publisher, it’s an opportunity to reflect on what’s going on in our industry, how we’re serving our readers, what we could do better, etc.
Self-reflection can be healthy. Each year, for instance, our Lebanon and Sweet Home newspapers enter the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s Better Newspapers Competition.
Of course, we’re interested in how we stack up against similar publications across the state, but I’ve found that it’s very eye-opening to collect submissions for the contests, which essentially requires page-by-page reviews of the entire previous year’s newspapers.
When I look at an entire year over the course of a few hours, I see patterns, I see things I never noticed when the paper came out (or when it was on a computer screen prior to publication). “Wow, couldn’t we have come up with a better photo for that?” “How in the world did THAT get there?” “Hey, did that happen that long ago?”
It’s an opportunity for some necessary self-analysis.
People often ask me how our newspapers are doing. I’m honest. I say that we’ve weathered COVID-19 better than I might have expected. We have talented and committed staffers who produce some good stuff for you. We can’t cover all the stories I’d like to cover, sometimes simply because we don’t have the resources (primarily manpower), but I think we do a pretty good job with what we’ve got.
And because I’m very self-critical by nature, I think that’s an accurate assessment. Most of our readers who send me notes or drop a comment on the street say they appreciate the paper. Thanks!
But journalism is a tough business right now, not just monetarily but socially. I don’t think that, when we went into COVID, I would have guessed that society would have become as angry and polarized as it is, and as distrustful of so many institutions in which we had more confidence not that long ago.
I’ve noticed this on a number of fronts, locally.
We’ve noticed that people seem less eager to let us take down their names when we include them in photos of a public event.
We’ve gotten more flak in the last year in covering crashes and fires than I remember ever experiencing in 40 years in this business.
At times we’ve had to scramble to find stories, as cancellations and, especially, the closures of schools during the last 18 months, greatly reduced community activities. We’ve dipped deeply into our reservoir of human-interest stories and we’re as sick of virtual meetings as anyone.
Government poses increasing problems. There are ongoing efforts to curtail what we, your newspaper, can do in covering news and what information we can access. There are laws prohibiting this, but it’s not always possible to mount a timely legal effort – i.e., formally appealing to a judge for a ruling on some law enforcement agency’s or government entity’s new rule that we can’t do such-and-such any more, or that we can’t have information we need. Agencies, knowingly or not, take advantage of that, and newspapers throughout Oregon are struggling with it.
If an official doesn’t want us to know something, it can be a time-consuming and draining experience to force them to reveal what the law says they must.
Here’s another example that might seem small, but like a lot of these types of laws, may have more impact than we might expect. We’ve written previously about the mugshot law that Oregon’s majority legislators blithely (and pretty much virtually) approved earlier this year, which greatly restricts the release of arrested people’s photos by law enforcement.
While there’s a problem withthe despicable “pay-to-play” criminal mugshot websites that the law targets, it includes legitimate news media as well.
How I see that affecting you, the reader, and us, the news source, is that after Jan. 1 it may be increasingly difficult to accurately identify people as we report on their alleged foibles, because we may not have access to a photo of the “John Smith” or “Heather Brown” who is sitting in County Jail.
Sure, the law ostensibly protects the futures of people who’ve been arrested, and whose likenesses and names wind up in Google searches for perpetuity, but it was, in my opinion, a broad-brush approach that will have ill effects that the legislators probably never thought about because they never held any true face-to-face public hearings on the issue.
The outcome is left, to some extent, to the discretion of law enforcement officials, so we’ll have to see what happens, but it’s a move in a dangerous direction: less information for you, the public, about what your civil servants are up to.
We’re living in an age when media are in the cross-hairs in many people’s minds. They don’t know who to trust, so they trust no one. Understandable. And the news media are not without fault here. Reporters who operate with an agenda as to what the news is and how they cover it don’t help those of us who still aim at simply providing accurate and as balanced-as-possible news coverage.
Back to National Newspaper Week: The theme this year was “community forum.”
While some of that involves reaching out and providing opportunities to interact with readers, in today’s world your local newspaper provides a forum that you’ll never get on social media: information that’s presented in a non-self-serving fashion, with your – not our – benefit in mind.
We provide coverage of a wide range of community events, and in doing so we help create and support local community of informed citizens.
Public notices (“the legals”) tell you specifics you need to know about what’s happening in the public arena, which are in the newspaper because we provide a neutral and permanent medium where such information can be found. That’s something local newspapers have been doing since the 1600s.
We provide a filtered community forum, where you can find commentary on what’s going on in the community (such as what’s happening right here) and letters to the editor, which are presented “tastefully,” as our Opinion Page rules state – in other words, filtered. We shy away from demeaning, self-serving shoot-from-the-hip angry diatribes that so frequently appear on social media. We promote civil discussion, not combat, not rants.
Journalism is a field where the sky is really the limit. We could all do better.
We’d like to. More coverage means more resources – reporters – and the necessary revenue to provide that. If you’re seeing a newspaper faltering, it’s because either the money isn’t there to support the editorial needs of the paper, or it’s because owners have decided to squeeze the maximum profit possible from their investment, to the detriment of their service to the community.
There’s a reason why people in the news business shudder when they refer to “vulture capitalists,” the investors who have bought many large newspapers and newspaper corporations and reduced them to mere shadows of what they once were, simply because their singular goal is profit, not service.
Newspapers aren’t dead and I don’t think they will die, entirely. The need persists for accurate, balanced reporting and community-building. That need will be met in some form, but I pray it happens before we lose the liberties that enable us to openly report what’s happening in our world.
That’s what we’re here for.
One more thing: This month marks the start of our sixth year of publishing Lebanon Local. Hard to believe, and I really want to thank the faithful advertisers and subscribers who have helped us get here. You’ve helped us make it work.
So, now you’ve heard from me, what do you think? Write or call: [email protected] or (541) 367-2136.