A recent new report documents the severe decline of Washington’s local news industry and how democracy is suffering as a result.
The League of Women Voters of Washington produced the 133-page report because it is concerned about how this crisis is affecting civic engagement, public health and even public finances, as research has found government costs are higher there are where there is no local journalism.
“Because of these very negative correlations, the league has a keen interest in the health of journalism,” said Lunell Haught, a Spokane business consultant who serves as president of the statewide nonprofit.
I hope that the report will be widely read by the public, educators and especially elected officials. The state’s federal delegation is already leading efforts to save local journalism, but a final push is needed to implement policies like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.
Several state-level aid proposals are expected in the upcoming legislature, including an extension of tax breaks for newspaper producers and a grant program for journalists modeled on California.
The league may choose to champion such a policy, but only after its chapters review the report and its 2,400 members decide on a position at a conference in May.
Meanwhile, several of the writers said they hope it inspires leagues in other states to do reports on the journalism crisis in their areas.
This would complement national research, such as Northwestern University’s Medill School’s The State of Local News report on news deserts, which formed a basis for the League’s project.
Full Disclosure: The League asked me to provide feedback as a technical writer while they were writing the report.
The report also highlights the services offered by ethnic media, how public health suffers from the decline in local news and new business continuity models such as: B. Philanthropies that partner with for-profit newspapers.
One of the lead authors, Delores Irwin, is a former journalist who moved to Ellensburg from California in 2015. She is grateful for the Ellensburg Daily Record but has watched it fade away in recent years.
“It’s not exactly a ghost newspaper, but it’s just a shadow of its former self — I can see it, to me the threat is real,” she said. “Now someone in Seattle is watching the Seattle Times, it’s not so obvious what’s happening. But when you live in a smaller community it’s right in front of your eyes, they cut down on the days they print, it’s just sad.”
Another lead author, Dee Anne Finken, is also a former journalist. She lives in Clark County, where she has seen The Columbian thin, but is also seeking community support, which allows her to add three reporters.
Though Washington continues to have at least one weekly newspaper in every county, that belies the scale of the problem, as the burned-out industry produces far less news coverage and has poor circulation in much of the state.
Headcount in newsrooms fell 67%, the report said, as the industry was disrupted by technological shifts and big tech companies dominated the advertising market.
“As across the country, the decline has meant Washington has seen an explosion of misinformation and disinformation, posing significant challenges for public health officials and others. Coverage of government agencies and elected officials in Washington has also declined significantly,” the report said.
Consolidation and divestitures by distant owners have also taken their toll, as indebted chains cut staff in cities like Tacoma, Olympia, and Tri-Cities.
“In perhaps the most egregious case, The News Tribune in Tacoma, which was purchased by a hedge fund a few years ago, shrank from more than 120 employees to just over two dozen,” it said.
Closures and cutbacks are being felt particularly in suburban and rural areas.
“The weekly papers, which closed between 2004 and 2022, served once-busy suburbs of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett as well as rural regions including Adams, Ferry, Grant, Grays Harbor and Yakima counties,” the report said. “Some may wonder if the dailies have made up for the coverage lost as a result of the closure of these weeklies. But observers said all remaining dailies have lost significant staff and advertising, leading them to rein in their own primary reporting.”
Rowland Thompson, chief executive of trade group Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said it was “very helpful” to have an impartial group document the industry’s situation.
“It is encouraging that the League of Women Voters is conducting this study and advocating for journalists. and it will make a difference for lawmakers to see that and to read the report too,” he said.
Haught said she hopes both the public and league members will read the report because the goal is to educate people about something critical to civic engagement.
The survival of democracy was a top concern in last week’s election, with 44% of voters saying it was their most important consideration, according to a nationwide poll by The Associated Press.
I suggest that voters with these concerns, and those who are skeptical of them, read the League’s report so we can move the conversation forward.
With any luck, 2022 could be seen as the tipping point that prompted America to pull itself together, come out of a trough, and bail out its essential institutions.