June 20, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Growing news deserts threaten civic culture

8 min read
Tim Gleason, former dean of the UO School of Journalism and Communication, described journalism's economic, trust, and news desert crises in Eugene, Oregon, and the nation.

Springfield City Club hosts a discussion on the future of local news. On Oct. 19, City Club President Tiffany Edwards:

Tiffany Edwards (Springfield City Club): Welcome, everybody, I’m Tiffany Edwards. I am the president of the Springfield City Club, so welcome today. Our program today is the future of local news. Noel Nash and Tim Gleason are our guests today. Noel owns The Chronicle, which is a publication in Springfield, the South Lane County communities. And then Tim Gleason is a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

[00:00:33] John Q: Noel shared a lot of great stories about his long experience in journalism, and for that recap, we encourage you to visit and contribute at his website, Chronicle1909.com. This story will focus on the remarks by former UO Journalism Dean Tim Gleason.

[00:00:49] Tim Gleason: …The three themes that I think are important for this discussion: There’s an economic crisis in the news business, trying to figure out, how do we fund journalism? How do we make sure the communities have a healthy journalistic presence and people reporting on what’s going on in the community?

[00:01:04] We also have a trust crisis. As with most large organizations and institutions, the public does not have the level of trust that they should have, that we need to create in journalism and in the journalistic product.

[00:01:18] And then we have what we can call a news desert crisis, which is to say that it’s actually, there’s something like 70 million people in the United States who don’t have access to any local journalism product—no newspaper, no nothing. And I think we can say in this community, given what has happened to the Register-Guard in the last 15 years, we live in something of a news desert.

[00:01:46] With all due respect and admiration for what the (Eugene) Weekly does, what KLCC does, what the Creswell Chronicle does, if you look at the number of journalists working in Oregon today, as opposed to the number of journalists working in Oregon 10 years ago, it’s probably something like a third of the number of people. If you combine all the newsrooms currently operating in Lane County, we wouldn’t even be close to what the Register-Guard had when it was a real newspaper.

[00:02:19] And that’s a crisis for all of us. It’s a civic health crisis that we really do need to figure out how to address.

[00:02:26] And I will say that the Chronicle and other operations that are in Oregon that are working hard are doing their best to cover what they can with the resources available.

[00:02:36] John Q: Tiffany asked about hyperlocal journalism.

[00:02:40] Tim Gleason: Yeah, I’m going to throw another term into the equation or into the conversation. And that is something that some of my colleagues at the University of Oregon have been doing a lot of work on. And that is talking about community-centered journalism, which is: You need journalism that is in the community, that is of the community, and that cares about the community.

[00:03:01] And so as there is some research my colleagues have reported that shows, ‘Audiences don’t want local news outlets just to be watchdogs. They want them to be good neighbors, too.’ All right? They want local journalism that cares about the community, that knows the community.

And having worked in community journalism for a while, there is no greater pressure than if you know that that story you wrote today, you’re going to have to walk into the coffee shop tomorrow morning and the people you wrote about are going to be sitting there.

[00:03:34] So you’ve got to care about your community and know your community. You’re not the New York Times, you know, parachuting in and doing a story on your community. You’re somebody who lives there and is part of that community.

[00:03:51] Tiffany Edwards (Springfield City Club): More and more, newly hired journalists in Eugene and Springfield are straight out of college. With this dynamic…we see this very commonly in news, they get up to speed and they’ve got their skills polished and then they move on to that bigger market.

[00:04:08] Tim Gleason: That’s what journalists do. They’re going to move from small markets to larger markets, generally speaking. And you just have to hope that you’ve got—especially in your editors—you’ve got some seniority in your newsroom that can help new journalists learn the community.

[00:04:22] One of the results of the last 15 years of journalism nationally has been a loss of institutional memory. So no matter what news organization you’re talking about, the knowledge in the newsroom about the community is substantially less than it used to be.

[00:04:40] This is even more true with television than it is in print. But it is a serious problem and I don’t know that there’s a solution for it other than becoming that place that is known as a good learning path (for reporters).

[00:04:55] John Q: Social media represents another big change in the news ecosystem.

[00:05:00] Tim Gleason: I think it’s important that we understand that the ecosystem has changed and especially with social media and the blurring of lines between what is journalism and what is social media—it’s a much messier world that we live in today.

[00:05:16] I think the general culture has changed in ways that make it more difficult to walk that journalistic line and to write stories that are free of any sort of bias, to the extent that they can be. And it’s especially hard because a lot of people believe that can’t be done. And that debate makes it very challenging, I think, especially for younger journalists.

[00:05:41] But the bottom line still is: If you’re doing journalism, you’re writing fact-based, providing fact-based information, and you’re doing it in a way that is as devoid of any sort of ideological or political or any other kind of bias as it possibly can be.

[00:06:00] There are all sorts of techniques that one can be taught, okay, ‘This is how you verify it, is the story too good to be true? If that’s so, it probably isn’t.’ And triangulating and having more sources and looking at something, making sure that it’s not just one source that’s providing this information.

[00:06:18] And that’s all well and good for most of the people in this room anyway, at least the older of us, we think that’s fine. That’s how we’re going to figure out how news works and how to verify information.

[00:06:28] But that’s not the reality of the social media world. You know, I have a 24-year-old daughter who’s very well-informed and I have no idea how (laughter). But it is a matter of verifying sources. I mean, that’s really all you can do. And whether it’s using traditional means of verifying those sources or other means, you have to be able to verify your sources are accurate and go with it.

[00:06:52] Unfortunately, we live in a world of news of assertion as opposed to fact-based news. And that’s certainly true in the online world. Not only assertion, but the immediate jump to conclusion, that is what we see every day.

[00:07:07] The example that we’re all struggling with today, which is: What did happen in Gaza? And you see the news organizations trying to figure out what actually did happen. Whose version of the story is true?

[00:07:21] But you also see a good portion of the world who is not at all interested in verifying the truth. They know the truth because they believe what they read or what they heard. So it’s a very hard question and a very challenging one…

[00:07:36] The bigger question is: How do we build a strong civic culture? How do we get people in communities (and this is preaching to the choir sitting here at the City Club), but how do we get people in the community to actually care about the community and think it’s important to care about, and that they need to be engaged in what’s going on in civic life and in their community.

[00:07:57] I mean, look at voting participation: What percentage of the population votes? It’s a very telling number, of a sense of disengagement. So how do we turn that around? And journalism is part of that. And local newspapers and community newspapers being in the community and of the community is a critical piece of that puzzle.

[00:08:16] One of the problems with journalism and many other things is that people don’t have the faintest idea of what you do or how you do it. And this would be true, whether you’re talking about a journalist or you’re talking about a legislator. People don’t know how these institutions work.

[00:08:31] So the more you can be out there and transparent about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and explaining it to people, the more likely you are to convince them that, in fact, what you’re doing is honest and truthful. But that doesn’t even begin to address the larger problem that I don’t know that anyone has an answer for, which is: We live in a world of assertion.

[00:08:54] And we also live in a world where people tend to live in echo chambers. And we all do this. I mean, we all hear something and it’s what it corresponds to what we think, therefore, we believe it’s true. Yeah. So it’s not a unique problem or an easy one to solve.

[00:09:12] Len Goodwin (Springfield City Club): We have a question from Zoom. The thrust of the question is: There’s a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this society. And the questioner wants to know: How can we provide important civic information to the whole community so that it’s available to everyone, and not just those who have disposable income to pay for a subscription?

[00:09:36] Tim Gleason: I think the questioner raises a fundamental question that we need to be looking at in every community. And that is: How do we build a healthy civic culture? And clearly you don’t have a healthy civic culture if the cost of a newspaper or the cost of whatever it is precludes a significant portion of the population being able to get information.

[00:10:00] So how you get to that answer, I’m not sure, but it’s a conversation that we should be having. And it involves government, it involves philanthropy, it involves for-profit, it involves everyone in the community figuring out how do we solve this problem.

[00:10:16] And this is not simply a newspaper problem. I mean, think about where you get information. And actually the FCC is about to look at this question in a little more detail: Is the internet a utility? Is it a public utility? Can you function in this society without good internet access? Or is it like water? And if it is a utility, then how do you make sure that you’ve got community access to it?

[00:10:42] It’s a big question, but I think it is the fundamental question.

[00:10:45] John Q: Former dean of the UO School of Journalism Tim Gleason at Springfield City Club, with praise for Noel Nash and the Chronicle, KLCC and the Weekly, as expanding news deserts threaten the future of the nation.

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