Saturday, May 16, 2020

Supporting the work behind the headlines

Like a lot of folks these days, I’ve been ordering books while hanging around the house.

One that showed up last week was a used copy—out of print and bearing a faded library stamp—of a basic newspapering text co-authored by a late professor who gave me an F on my first typewritten attempt at college journalism. (Not to worry: He gave everyone an F on that first assignment. It was tough love, and there was considerably more elbow room in Beginning Reporting the following week.)

On page 7 I found a truism that I’m sure would have seemed redundant to a J-school sophomore when I first read this book in the analog 1980s, but I think it’s worth reviewing in our current Information Age.

“What the reader wants first is trustworthy information,” Jim Neal and co-author Suzanne Brown stated in “Newswriting and Reporting,” their 1976 book. “And to get it, reporters first must be exposed to it. Simple exposure—access to information—is a basic problem. If reporters can’t get to the scene of the action, if they can’t reach someone who did, if they can’t see the right documents or reach the person who has special information, they can’t get the story.”

Imagine that. You can’t verify the information, so you don’t publish it.

I don’t have to tell you that not everyone who spreads “information” these days adheres to those standards. Some have a niche agenda, or a political one. Some seek to dish out comeuppance to “the media.”

Me? I’ve gone on a media-buying frenzy in the last month. Already battered by digital disruption, outlets all across America are shedding jobs at a rate that should worry anyone who wants to know how their taxes are spent, what their school boards are doing, how the pandemic is playing out in their community.

First I bought my mom (Happy Mother’s Day!) a print subscription to the Watertown Daily Times, which she wanted to renew after having let it lapse. Then I looked around for other local journalists I could support during a time when economic collapse threatens to finish the job that “free” access to expensively produced journalism has been chipping away at ever since our computers survived Y2K. I already subscribe to my community’s paper, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, so I broadened my scope to other places I’ve lived and still care about, and other newsrooms where I know and admire the work of committed truth-seekers. I bought (cheap!) digital subscriptions to the Anchorage Daily News, the Chicago Tribune and the Arizona Republic. I donated to The Salt Lake Tribune, whose difficulties led it to transition to a nonprofit model last year.

Some of my social media connections—like some of yours, if you partake—are journalism skeptics, to say the least. If they’re of one party, the media are biased. If they’re of another, “corporate media” are ruining the country. Truly, none of us in this business is perfect. (Reputable publications print corrections.) But let me ask this: Who among the critics goes poking around suburban city halls to see who’s misappropriating public funds, the way the Los Angeles Times did in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series that I keep thinking of when I imagine what we’ll lose when newspapers are finally killed off? If you paid taxes in one of your county’s poorest communities, wouldn’t you want to know that your local officials had some of the highest salaries in the nation? Somebody paid a journalist’s salary to find that out.

If you had a child considering Brigham Young University a couple years ago, wouldn’t you have wanted to read The Salt Lake Tribune’s investigation into the school’s treatment of students who report sexual assault? Who else was going to seek answers and tell that story about one of Utah’s most revered institutions?

If you lived in Alaska, one of the nation’s least-populated and most-isolated states, let alone one of its remote villages, wouldn’t you want to know how the state had neglected to police a third of these communities with some of America’s highest rates of poverty and sexual assault? The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica thought you might, and this week were awarded a Pulitzer for it. Trust me: They didn’t just hear some rumors and tweet them along. They spent the money to go out there and, as my old professor advised, exposed themselves to trustworthy information.

Here’s one I’ll bet you’ve heard about: the scandal surrounding wait times for treatment at Veterans Administration centers and the falsified data hiding it. But I’ll bet you never would have heard about it without the work of one of my former colleagues at the Arizona Republic.

Here at the Adirondack Explorer, we have a unique niche—but one that you likely care about if you’re receiving this newsletter. You love the Adirondack Park, and we live to cover it. Did you know that the park’s residents and upstate neighbors who suffer state-sanctioned water pollution from road salting are often powerless to fight the state for clean water? You did if you read the Explorer, because we paid for that story through your subscriptions, advertising dollars and—at an increasing rate—your donations. While so many publications have cut expenses by dismissing reporters, we’ve been growing our staff, focusing more attention on the government actions that affect these mountains and lakes. It’s momentum that we want to keep building on through the hard times this year. As our publisher, Tracy Ormsbee, says in an appeal, “Your tax-deductible gift will underwrite the Explorer’s critical coverage of Adirondack communities hit hard by forced coronavirus shutdowns. Rural communities, already on precarious footing in an area reliant on a tourism economy, will face an even more difficult recovery if the virus shuts down the summer season.”

If any of these stories sound like something that biased, corporate hacks would gin up to promote a personal agenda, you’re more skeptical than this professional skeptic. But if they don’t, and if, like me, you’re lucky enough to have steady income these days, I hope you’ll support your local newspaper so truth keeps coming to light wherever you live. Just like our water is the lifeblood of the Adirondack ecosystem, paid local reporters are the source of trustworthy information that feeds the online news ecosystem.

And if you have some spare cash left over, I hope you’ll help your favorite nonprofit magazine keep getting the story.

This essay was originally sent through the Adirondack Explorer’s Explore More newsletter. Sign up here:

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Brandon Loomis is a former Adirondack Explorer editor.

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