Journalists examine state of the local media

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By John Larson – jlarson@tacomaweekly.com

 

The future of our local press was the topic of the City Club of Tacoma dinner on May 1. It took place at the University of Puget Sound, where a panel of four journalists described the current state of their profession.

Matt Martinez is director of content at KNKX radio. He began working at National Public Radio in 2000 as a producer for the program “All Things Considered.”

Robert McClure is co-founder and executive director of InvestigateWest. He worked for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, covering environmental issues. He is a former board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and serves as chairman of the editorial board of SE Journal, the group’s quarterly publication.

Dale Phelps is editor and vice president of news with The News Tribune. He began working at the paper in 1998 as sports editor and became managing editor in 2008.

Lisa Patterson is editor in chief of South Sound Magazine and 425 Magazine. She spent several years as a newspaper reporter before joining Premier Media Group in 2006.

Joanne Lisosky, a professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University, served at the moderator. She began by noting how Americans can get overdosed on national news via cable television and the Internet, but local news coverage of city council meetings, school activities and potholes in need of filling is important. “These are the things that get us through our day.”

Lisosky noted that much of the Western world requires teenagers to take a media literacy classes. Our state passed such a law in 2016, but implementation is on hold while the curriculum is in the planning phase.

According to a recent survey, 75 percent of respondents think local news outlets are on strong financial footing. One in six pays to receive their news in some manner.

Patterson describe her main publications as lifestyle magazines, focusing on new restaurants and profiles of interesting people. Her company purchased the Business Examiner newspaper and converted into South Sound Business magazine.

Martinez said his station has a regional approach to local news, with coverage from Vancouver, Wash. to Vancouver, B.C.

McClure worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it was shut down by its owner, the Hearst Newspapers. He noted the distress he felt by the impact new technology had on the traditional newspaper business model.

He and other reporters from that paper launched Investigate West as a non-profit organization focusing on coverage of environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest. The initial idea was to produce articles to run in newspapers, but it is now an online-only source of information.

He noted a daily paper in Philadelphia is now operated by a public trust.

Phelps described TNT as a general interest newspaper. It is owned by McClatchy Corporation, which owns papers around the country. He discussed how TNT used to generate much revenue from classified ads and full-page ads from large retailers like the Bon Marche. The former has mostly shifted to websites like Craigslist, while most large retailers now advertise on television.

The paper has raised subscription prices, while trying to get people to pay to read articles on its website.

“It is very difficult to make that transition,” he observed. “We have to persuade you we have value.

The paper has long been regarding as having one of the top sports sections in the nation, although that coverage is less than it once was. He noted that articles about the Seattle Seahawks on the TNT website receive many views from around the nation. The management realized that Pierce County residents who pay to view its website are different than pro football fans around the nation, who have little interest in stories about Tacoma City Council meetings, crime or other local issues. As a result, TNT offers a sports-only subscription.

There is no cost to listen to the radio. As a public radio station, KNKX has pledge drives that pay for equipment. Martinez said government grants account for 3 percent of the budget, which is $8 million a year.

Patterson said her magazines derive most of their revenue from advertising. Some comes from subscriptions, as well as single-copy sales at grocery stores and other locations. It also generates money from special events, such as one honoring winners in its Best of the South Sound contest. It has a staff of 20. They do not charge for viewing their websites.

Her printing costs are somewhat high, as the magazines are printed on high-quality paper with strong graphic design elements.

“I think journalists should get paid a lot more,” she said. “What we do is important. This job is hard.” She supports media literacy education. “We need to teach people where their news is coming from.”

McClure said most of his colleagues have another, higher paying job. It just received a grant for $10,000 to report on public housing. It receives 75 percent of its funding from foundations.

Investigate West is still building its business model. It rents its office space from Cascade Public Media, which includes Crosscut and KCTS TV.

Phelps said his paper spends many millions a year on salaries, printing and other costs. It had 138 employees in the newsroom when he arrived 21 years ago. Now it has about 25. He said the paper wants to improve its coverage of local governments. Despite the setbacks, he is optimistic about the future. “This is an exciting time in our business.”

McClure would like to see citizens fund journalism, similar to a public school district. He mentioned Bell, Calif., a small suburb of Los Angeles. It was off the radar screen of major media outlets. Eventually one discovered that city officials were getting paid outrageously large salaries given the town’s population and tax base. For many years, no one noticed. “How many bells are up here?”

Patterson said if her paper had more money, it would hire more reporters to write more articles on topic it already covers. Her staff keeps up on trends and strives to learn what readers want. They do surveys of people who attend their events. “We are doing really well right now.”

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