Doom-laden bombast about future of journalism overlooks striking work in Kansas, elsewhere

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Journalism in the United States faces challenges, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone. But professional doomsayers overlook the quality work and experimentation going on under their noses. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

By Clay Wirestone, Kansas Reflector
January 31, 2024

When I was growing up, not that long ago, my family subscribed to two daily newspapers.

The Wichita Eagle arrived in the morning and had the biggest comics page, which my brother, sister and I would fight one another to read. My mother and father looked through the national and local news sections. I would skim them now and again (especially the editorial pages) but often headed to the arts section instead, full of movie reviews and entertainment coverage.

In the afternoon, after school, the El Dorado Times thumped on the porch. It was a smaller paper, often only one section in black and white, but it carried local news and another, smaller comics page. You read it to learn what was going on in town, with your friends and neighbors, and what times movies played at the local theater.

Writing about these experiences today makes me sound impossibly ancient. I might as well complain about the lack of qualified blacksmiths or cobblers in my neighborhood.

Times change. News outlets change.

The technological disruptions of the internet age have fragmented that once-cozy, symbiotic relationship between news sources and their readers. We see more news than ever before, but it comes via a barrage of email, social network posts, video clips and websites. Printed papers still exist of course, but outlets have increasingly cut back on physical product.

This turmoil has churned since I entered news as a professional, two decades ago now. Every few years, I would hear of layoffs or closures and read accompanying waves of doom-filled commentary. Some eras have seen more destruction than others, but the turmoil has continued.

The latest bout came this month, after layoffs at the Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine, the online music site Pitchfork and erstwhile Sports Illustrated.

The News About the News Business Is Getting Grimmer,” announced The New York Times.

The News Business Really Is Cratering,” proclaimed Politico.

Is American Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’?” asked the not at all alarmist Atlantic.

Forgive me an exasperated groan.

The problem with this framing — and it’s just as wrong now as it was wrong 20 years ago — is that there is no “news business,” singular. There is instead a vast array of businesses and nonprofit entities, ranging in size from the New York Times (with a staggering 1,700 journalists) to one-person online outfits. Giant legacy shops now operate on the same footing as nonprofit States Newsroom, parent of Kansas Reflector, which employs 217 staff and runs outlets in 39 states.

Some of the news businesses and nonprofits have done well. Some have faced challenges. Some have closed while others have opened.

None of this should come as a surprise if you understand that newspapers and magazines once thrived on advertising dollars that then migrated to tech companies. Readers have been asked to make up the gap. At some publications, paywalls and online subscriptions have succeeded. Elsewhere, philanthropy has bolstered built-from-scratch outlets.

So why the latest rending of garments?

I suspect that coastal media elites have figured out what journalists in the rest of the country have understood for years now. No magic button or one-size-fits-all option exists for news outlets. Every entity has to figure out who it serves and why, and decide what model makes the most sense for long-term viability. Social media engagement, video clips, live events, subscription packages, billionaire owners — no single approach will “save” journalism on all levels and in all locations.

Plenty of outlets don’t need saving anyway. Instead, we should focus on smart experimentation, be willing to adapt and forge ahead. We all want to serve our communities and hold public officials accountable. If we have opinion sections, we want to add a dash of moral judgment.

The work, no matter the platform, needs doing.

Some commentators have urged the government to act. Paul Farhi, in the Atlantic column mentioned above, sketches out ways lawmakers could support journalism (the piece reads better than its alarmist headline). Call me old fashioned, but the notion of federal or state laws propping up publications makes me uneasy.

Still, 20 years ago I wouldn’t have foreseen working at a journalism nonprofit. Aside from the august example of National Public Radio, they didn’t exist back then. Who knows what surprises the future holds?

Chris Fitzsimon, director and publisher of States Newsroom, agrees the times can feel unsettling.

“Journalism is definitely in a period of transition and there are plenty of reasons to worry,” he told me. “But there are lots of exciting things happening, too, as nonprofits are increasingly providing top-notch reporting and analysis. We must think of journalism as a public good and vital for the health of our democracy. States Newsroom is one example of a nonprofit providing high-quality reporting. There are many others across the county.”

For that matter, there are many in Kansas.

The Kansas City Beacon and Wichita Beacon have carved out niches with local reporting about those two major cities. University of Kansas associate professor Teri Finneman started up the hyperlocal Eudora Times. The Kansas News Service launched in 2017 and has made its name with dependable, statewide coverage.

On the for-profit side, the Eagle and Kansas City Star continue to produce work of lasting value, despite the challenges mentioned above. Ditto for the quality Statehouse reporting from the Topeka Capital-Journal. Out in Newton, Harvey County Now succeeded in starting a newspaper. Closer to my home, the plucky Lawrence Times has gone toe-to-toe with the Lawrence Journal-World (we’re fans of both around here, so don’t ask us to to pick just one).

But all these examples, for-profit and nonprofit, scarcely reveal the full picture. Dozens of daily and weekly papers publish across the state, many of them family owned. They include the Iola Register, the Emporia Gazette, Manhattan Mercury and Marion County Record. Public radio stations across the states cover news and culture with the best of them.

Other states can boast of aggressive, quality coverage as well. They should. Exemplars of excellence surround us.

Sure looks like a crisis in journalism, doesn’t it?

Sarcasm aside, I understand why journalists fret. But I’ve become more optimistic than I was 15 years ago.

Back then, the Great Recession had chewed up the economy, coinciding with widespread adoption of smartphones. I didn’t know what the path forward was for print media. Since then, we’ve seen online-only reporting gain a foothold and attract talented journalists. We’ve seen other models emerge in fits and starts, all the while producing great work and serving the public. I’ve seen the resilience and talent of those who came up after me, undaunted by an economy where just about any job makes more sense than being a reporter.

Usually, someone writes a column along these lines because they’re leaving a publication or the field as a whole. I’m sorry to inform my detractors online that’s not the case. I’m enjoying myself too much, and for a good cause besides. Meanwhile, I’m lucky to live in a state where myriad journalists set an example for the nation.

Heck, these words might even show up on someone’s doorstep in the morning or afternoon, reprinted by a local paper.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: [email protected]. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.