State of the Union? How about the state of newspapers?

Last week I watched the State of the Union Address.
Even though I’m a newspaper editor, I admittedly don’t spend a great amount of time contemplating national politics and news because just busy focusing on what’s going on right here in east Linn County occupies a lot of my days.
Nonetheless, I certainly was interested in what President Biden had to say, and I was also interested in the crowd reaction – which was, frankly, pretty entertaining.
The problem with State of the Union addresses is they’re largely written by speech writers and they’re full of political posturing. Even the applause, or lack thereof, is often posturing because politicians know their constituents are watching and they might see them on camera, clapping or sitting stolidly with dour looks on their faces, depending on what’s coming out of the president’s mouth.
And then we wonder how much we don’t know about what’s being said.
I recently ran across a piece written by Bill Adair, a guy who is really into fact-checking. Adair, a journalism and public policy professor at Duke University, is also the founder of Politifact.
Politifact is a fact-checking website owned by the Poynter Insititute, a nonprofit media institute and newsroom that provides fact-checking, media literacy and journalism ethics training to citizens and journalists. It rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others on its Truth-O-Meter.
Adair noted that the State of the Union message has been called “the Super Bowl of fact-checking” and then he said something interesting after predicting that Biden’s speech would be dissected by a host of reporters of all stripes: “They’ll be wasting their time on the wrong guy.”
He went on to explain himself: “Journalists are putting too much attention on national politicians such as Biden and Donald Trump who are well-checked. The real need is at the state and local levels.”
Adair’s point is one that I’ve actually been thinking about for a long time, and I know many of our readers have as well, though maybe not in that context.
The sad demise of the Lebanon Express (page 1) comes on the heels of the Medford Mail Tribune, a one-time Pulitzer Prize-winning local newspaper that won for exposing local political corruption in southern Oregon.
Thankfully, other news organizations have stepped in down in Medford and are already or are gearing up to provide local news in Medford.
Meanwhile, we’re here for our readers in Lebanon and we plan to stay.
As I’ve mentioned in the past – on more occasions than I care to remember – there’s no question that times are tough for newspapers. But after nearly 17 years of publishing a weekly newspaper up the road in Sweet Home, I can attest that it’s possible to survive.
There are some requirements for a newspaper’s survival, on both sides. A community needs to value what the newspaper provides by supporting it through subscriptions and advertising, which are two of the biggest revenue streams for newspapers.
But the newspaper has to perform as well.
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.
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, we’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. Not everyone will always appreciate what we do.
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.
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.
But you’re needed, and if you’re 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.