As we mark the 79th annual National Newspaper Week this week, many of us who have worked in the newspaper business for a couple decades are feeling more conflicted than ever before.
On the one hand, we still believe in the power of newspapers to help educate, inform and uncover. We have seen firsthand how good, solid reporting on issues often ignored by other media outlets that may be focused on breaking news or shock-and-awe crime stories can lead to positive change in our communities.
And we know, deep in our hearts, the work of trained newspaper journalists cannot easily be reproduced by online news bloggers — many of whom are paid marketing or public relations consultants — and will never be replicated in the factually incorrect and hate-filled comments on social media.
On the other hand, we wonder how long newspapers can survive in communities where distrust — for the media, the government, each other — is at an all-time high.
In the past, newspaper journalists weathered deep revenue losses, staff cuts, wage freezes, furlough days and mandatory holiday work because we believed our work contributed to the betterment of society. And community members generally supported us. They wrote often, sent thank-you cards, approached reporters after public meetings to let them know they appreciated their local newspaper and welcomed them into their schools to write feel-good stories about students.
Today’s world, however, is a different picture for many newspaper journalists.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, trust in media took an extreme dip in 2016, after the divisive presidential campaign that saw President Donald Trump pushing his “fake news” narrative for any story that hurt his ego — even if the journalists at question were, quite literally, quoting Trump’s own words. Today, the level of trust in the media to “fully, accurately and fairly” report the news is at 15 percent for Republicans and 69 percent for Democrats.
One of the most puzzling things is that many of the folks who are most distrustful of trained media professionals seem to be crying out for information the local newspaper has often been covering for many years.
Take the current Camas Community and Aquatics Center debate as an example. Many people seem to think the Camas City Council’s decision to put a $78 million bond proposition on the November ballot came out of thin air. The truth is that the Post-Record’s newsroom, which has one editor, one full-time reporter and one half-time sports reporter, has been producing stories about the possibility of a community-aquatics center for several years.
Over the past two years, we’ve dedicated at least 15 stories to the issue — and have covered many of the topics the community center’s detractors bring up as proof the city council is somehow being shady, including the many location options considered for the center; the city’s community center studies conducted in 2001, 2007 and 2012; the costs the Port of Camas-Washougal would incur if the Port agreed to site the center on its waterfront property between Camas and Washougal; and the possibility of forming a metropolitan parks district to help fund a future center’s operational costs.
Still, we hear over and over again that the newspaper and its journalists are failing the community by not reporting enough on this issue. Even when we tell them we’ve written 15 stories in the past 24 months, they balk: “If we’ve written so many stories,” they ask, “why haven’t they seen them?” We don’t have a good answer for that, so we usually send links to the articles, all of which can be read for free online. That’s when the detractors go silent or, many times, counter by saying they don’t trust any of those stories.
There is no easy fix for this growing distrust. It used to be that people went to the newspaper to learn new things about their community. But, lately, it seems like they go to the newspaper looking for validation that their beliefs are correct. When challenged by facts and figures that don’t match their beliefs, they rebel. The newspaper is wrong. They are right. And they go on with their days.
No one really wants to live in a community where people don’t trust each other. We believe newspapers can go a long way toward healing this distrust by continuing to be watchdogs against abuses in our communities and by pursuing stories that inspire people to find their similarities instead of dwelling on their differences.
But we can only do this if we have a deep base of support from subscribers and advertisers. Without that, community newspapers will continue to shrink and disappear — more than 1,400 U.S. cities and towns have lost their local newspapers since 2004 — and communities will have fewer places to turn for impartial facts.