Three things to know about community journalism
Objectivity is newsroom goal in effort to keep credibility in marketSeptember 8th, 2022
The Journal is making a lame attempt at becoming a woke publication.
That’s the assertion of a reader who sent me a letter earlier this summer. He took issue with a story we wrote about a couple of women who had started a gender-inclusive clothing company in downtown Spokane. He also expressed disinterest in a piece about the small percentage of women on the boards of public companies in the Inland Northwest.
I respect his right to an opinion that differs from mine, and I appreciate anybody who takes the time to craft a personal letter, regardless of its content.
The assertion of some sort of agenda, however, is an example of broader misconceptions people have of newspapers specifically, and in some cases, journalism in general.
We’ll talk more about agendas in media later, but for now, allow me to shift gears slightly. At the beginning of the year, the Journal added this Insights page to provide a venue where businesspeople and others in the community could provide advice, observation, and guidance. It’s been a valuable addition, with contributors writing about everything from live events in a post-pandemic era to population growth to Washington’s connection to Russia.
In an era in which newspapers have faded in ubiquity, it’s become clear that many people don’t know how local journalists function or how they perceive their role in the overall community. I’d like to use this space to explain a few basics. These are things many of you know already, but based on some conversations I’ve had in recent years, not everybody does.
Stories aren’t for sale. We make editorial decisions based on news value. With a business journal, news often revolves around how businesses use their resources, or put more simply, how they spend or save money. Building new structures. Leasing space. Raising capital. Hiring staff. Firing people. Typically, what we’re writing about involves one or more of those elements—or conditions in the economy that make it easier or harder to do those things.
But while news value and capital expenditures often are intertwined, those stories aren’t being crafted because a company spends money with us. An organization might call to place an ad after talking to a reporter, but nothing the newsroom does is contingent upon dollars being spent with us.
I say this with full acknowledgement that we couldn’t do what we do without the support of advertisers and with gratitude that they view us as a wise investment of advertising dollars.
Sponsored content—called native advertising by some—has become more common in recent years. With that, some newspapers provide a spot, usually online, where they publish pieces advertisers write themselves. The newspapers I’m aware of that offer that service handle it separate from the newsroom. The Journal doesn’t currently sell sponsored content.
There isn’t a magic PR bullet. Of course, some public-relations professionals are more effective than others, but a good story is a good story regardless of how it comes about. And speaking for myself—and not necessarily other editors—a press release is welcome in any form, through any method of submission. Email. Snail mail. DM on Instagram. We even still have fax machine capabilities. If you’re developing a high-rise downtown or bringing a manufacturing plant to town, writing it on a bar napkin with a good phone number for the source would suffice.
We can appreciate clever approaches to press releases as much as anyone, but in reality, they typically don’t affect coverage.
Now would be a good time to mention that Journal reporters ethically aren’t supposed to accept anything of significant value from sources, in an effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Once, years ago, a food producer sent out a press release attached to a big case of baked goods that were worth about $100. In a move that might sound insane to people in other industries, we kept the press release and took the treats down to the House of Charity.
There’s no agenda. And now, back to the conversation on objectivity. I speak to college classes occasionally, and going into those opportunities, I always imagine someone asking a question about media bias that evolves into a deep, philosophical conversation about human nature and objectivity. It never happens. Someday, I tell myself.
I’d like to tell you that we’re completely objective, but I don’t know that full objectivity is possible. The people in the newsroom have their own beliefs and outlooks on life, and our respective experiences inform how we approach news. And since we work for a business newspaper, we approach story ideas from a perspective that a businessperson would find interesting. But there’s a concerted effort to be objective—and more importantly, no agenda beyond telling people what’s going on.
The six of us in the newsroom represent three different races, three different generations, and grew up in four different states. We all have biases and blind spots, but they aren’t the same perspectives. I believe that makes us stronger and more capable as a team.
And now I’m breaking my own rule. I admonish everybody who writes for this page not to be self-promotional, which means I’m bumping up against hypocrisy as I describe our team.
Let me leave you with this thought, at the risk of sounding like an old man yelling at a cloud. The term media has expanded to include memes, tweets, and YouTube videos. We benefit from more voices, but we also have to be more critical in our thinking to avoid the consumption and spread of disinformation. Because there’s plenty of that out there. We hope you read responsibly—and that we’re a beneficial source of information for you.