By Jacqui Banaszynski
Last week, the struggling business of journalism got a rare bit of good news. To summarize it, I borrow from the Nieman Reports website (https://niemanreports.org):
“A nonpartisan group of 22 foundations today announced the launch of Press Forward, a nationwide coalition committing more than $500 million over five years to help reinvigorate local news in America.”
I urge you to read the full story, written by Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which is one of the project’s funders. There’s also a good overview from the MacArthur Foundation (www.macfound.org), another major funder. Both include the discouraging statistics about the news deserts expanding across the U.S. as local news outlets are gutted or closed altogether. Both outline the goals of project, which include direct support to individual local journalism sites as well as advances in technology that can be of benefit to all.
To say this is huge is an understatement. To say this is just a start, as both pieces note, is a necessary caution. Even a half-billion (that’s billion with a B) dollars isn’t enough to stabilize and save journalism for the long haul. And while this may seem a self-serving mission on the part of those who are invested in that mission, make no mistake: Saving and sustaining journalism is no less than saving and sustaining a functional democracy.
That latter connection is not preached about in either of the overviews linked above. It’s my editorial comment, but one that I see, sadly, proven out again and again and again. When independent local journalism wanes and dies, so does active engagement in a shared, civil society. Voting goes down, Fewer people and/or less qualified people run for public office. Corruption goes unchecked.
I don’t want to preach, either. It’s redundant to those who share these views — and this knowledge. It alienates those who have fallen into the deepening sinkholes of disinformation. I simply want to thank the folks and foundations who are making Press Forward happen. Taking a strong and united stand against the erosion of independent, public service journalism is overdue — and, dare I say, an inspiration to keep the faith.
I spent my career in local newspapers. That was a choice; when I had the chance to go the national mastheads, I realized I really wanted to report, write and edit for people in communities I knew and loved. I wanted to help people know their neighbors, know their shared problems, find shared solutions, make those communities better. I grieve for cities I’ve lived in and loved that are now ill-served by the corporate raiders and hedge funds that have left stellar local newspapers gasping for survival until there is not a penny left to be squeezed from them.
My name is no longer on a newspaper masthead. I’ve now reached the age where I can pay a bit of expertise back so the next generations can pay it forward. I coach and consult in a range of newsrooms, edit projects for newsrooms that don’t have a deep editing bench, and teach journalists around the world.
More important, I remain a loyal subscriber. Newsletters from more than a dozen news sites fill my inbox each day with information I consider essential to engaged citizenship. The New York Times and Seattle Times land on my Seattle porch every morning before dawn. The Methow Valley News comes in the mail every week or is brought to my Mazama cabin; it’s a perk from the editor, who happens to be my life partner.
On the last note: Don Nelson and I have subscribed to the Methow Valley News since we first visited the valley almost 30 years ago. His decision 12 years ago to buy the paper comes at a cost to our personal lives, but we both understood why it mattered — to him and to a place we loved.
When I was finally able to fulfill my own dreams and buy a simple cabin, I had a checklist of “musts.” Among them: internet access, available fire protection, a carport or garage, an efficient wood stove, neighbors within hailing distance. And a newspaper that knows and cares about the community it serves.
That latter is no less than any community needs to thrive.
Jacqui Banaszynski is editor of the Nieman Storyboard website (https://niemanstoryboard.org), which explores the craft of nonfiction storytelling; this article is adapted with permission. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing; was an editor at the Seattle Times and Portland Oregonian; and was a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a part-time resident of the Methow Valley.