Yesterday may have been called “World Press Freedom Day,” but the focus of this year’s celebration at the National Press Club was decidedly local.
The event featured three different panel discussions with a variety of journalists and media professionals who had much to say on the challenges facing journalism in the years ahead.
Among the usual calls for greater government transparency and more protections for journalists around the world – both important causes given that world press freedom has hit an all-time low – there was an understanding that journalists must work hard to win back the public’s trust. In order to do so, they need to do a better job of connecting with the communities they cover.
Fueled in part by political anxiety and massive changes in news consumption habits, public trust in the media hit a new low, according to the Edelman public trust barometer. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said they distrusted the media in 2017.
Recent Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, who manages and writes editorials for the The Storm Lake Times, a tiny, family-owned newspaper in northwestern Iowa, had some thoughts as to why.
Unlike many of the other panelists, who come from big-name newsrooms in major cities, Cullen does not consider himself a member of the “media elite.”
Rather, he’s very much a part of Storm Lake, the small rural town of 10,000 where his newspaper is based.
Although Cullen won a Pulitzer for his hard-hitting editorials taking on Iowa’s agricultural interests, the Storm Lake Times remains very much a community newspaper, printing what the community cares about and what Cullen often calls “puppies and babies.” That includes lots of reader-submitted content and sometimes page-long obituaries.
“We print everything,” he said. “If it’s important enough to bring it into our office, then it’s important enough for us to run it.”
Tracey Taylor, who co-founded Berkleyside, a site that focuses almost exclusively on local and regional coverage, agreed that community newspapers have an important role to play.
“We try very hard to involve citizens in the process as much as we can,” Taylor said. “And we work hard in getting people to submit story tips and offer their input.”
Other panelists expressed support for journalism as an essential public service, and highlighted the need to communicate that the media is on the people’s side.
“Look, we’re the ones sitting in those city council and state legislative meetings so you don’t have to,” said Dan Shelley, president of the Radio Television Digital News Association.
As the discussion turned to how to keep hard-hitting journalism economically viable, panelists floated a number of ideas–but all agreed that people don’t go into journalism for the money.
“We live a life of genteel poverty,” Cullen said.
Some talked about the explosion of media entrepreneurship and how hundreds of new media sites are popping up around the web to cover niche issues in depth.
Others discussed the role nonprofit foundations can play in reinvigorating local and regional journalism, especially in areas where print newsrooms have been significantly cut back.
One such example is the online news site Mississippi Today, which launched in 2015 with seed funding from several foundations and private donors. That has given the organization the freedom to make necessary staff hires and set a long-term plan for the future.
“There’s this incredible collaboration coming from within the nonprofit media sector,” said Fred Anklam, who represented Mississippi Today on the panel and serves as the site’s co-editor. “We’re trying to be a mini-Texas Tribune.”
The Texas Tribune, which was also present and represented by Washington Bureau Chief Abby Livingston, was an early pioneer of the digital, nonprofit news site model with an extensive focus on state and regional issues. The site was founded in 2009 with venture capital funding and has since grown to have the largest statehouse bureau of anywhere in the United States.
Panelists were also united on the idea that local and regional newsrooms need more talented, ambitious young people to tackle the important stories and keep public officials accountable.
“You’ll be able to write and do so much more [in a local outlet],” said Taylor. “And you’ll be an overall better reporter.”
Overall, the panelists at the National Press Club’s World Press Freedom Day event focused on the importance of having a local impact. After all, the world is made up of our smaller communities, where journalism has become more important than ever.