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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Why local news matters

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: November 18, 2023, 6:10am

Does local news even matter? The question was answered even before it was asked.

Of course it does, according to a study by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Washington, which on Thursday sponsored a panel discussion at the Vancouver Community Library to talk about the local news in Clark County.

Will Campbell, our innovation editor and one of the fourth-generation owners of The Columbian, represented us on the panel, but I attended to listen, take notes and report back to you about the discussion. If you want to learn more, the entire 90-minute forum was recorded by CVTV and is available on its site, cvtv.org.

The discussion kicked off with the report’s findings that a lack of local news leads to fewer candidates for public office, lower voter turnout and more use of highly partisan news sources. Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said nice things about local media in general and The Columbian in particular, talking about how local journalists build a partnership with information sources in city government, which allows local news and information to be reported fairly and accurately.

Next, the discussion turned to the difficulty consumers have in deciding what to believe. Panelist Regina Lawrence, associate dean at the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center, said that is even a difficult question for journalism students these days. Social media can be accurate, or wildly inaccurate. Len Reed, an adjunct journalism professor at Washington State University Vancouver, talked about the need for media literacy. He noted that people spend hours every day looking at screens on computers, phones, tablets and other devices. “It’s very easy to get lost,” he said.

But even as consumers look to find well-reported news, the traditional business model has collapsed for local journalism. Lawrence explained that media, particularly newspapers, once relied on advertising revenue to fund their newsgathering efforts. Now, in an era when big technology companies monopolize the advertising market, it’s tough for local news media to remain profitable, particularly those serving rural areas or other marginalized communities.

Campbell noted that new business models have emerged, including news websites, either nonprofit or for-profit. Another innovation has been the move to underwrite specific reporters’ salaries with philanthropic donations. The Seattle Times is a leader in this, with 27 newsroom positions supported by donors. The Columbian now has five reporters whose salaries are paid by donations.

That prompted a good question about how readers can be assured that donors do not get to set the local news agenda. Campbell responded that donors are told in advance, before their money is accepted, that they will have no access to what stories are being planned or to see them before publication. And, he noted, back when advertising was the biggest piece of the revenue pie, certain advertisers would object to stories. So there is a tradition of a robust firewall between news and business operations at newspapers.

The conversation also touched on artificial intelligence, a topic that has been getting a lot of attention in journalism circles. The mayor shared a tale of how she shopped for slippers for her mother-in-law and now the ads follow her everywhere. Campbell said at the local level, AI further muddies the waters and makes it difficult for local media, particularly locally owned media like The Columbian, to compete for advertising and circulation dollars.

It was a sobering discussion at times, but I took heart at these two statements by community-minded people, the first by the mayor of a large Washington city and the second by an owner with the passion for the news:

“We absolutely need newspapers,” McEnerny-Ogle said.

“I don’t think print will ever go away,” Campbell said.