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If The Olympian is dying, what do we do?


Last week the Envirotalk listserv was abuzz with the news that The News Tribune will cut at least 10 out of its 65 editorial staff (Seattle Times story here). In a way the extensive debate was an overreaction to the immediate news. We don’t know yet how — and even if — the cuts will roll downhill to The Olympian, whose editorial and business operations have been partially integrated with The News Tribune over the last few years.

Envirotalk’s discussion was still needed, in much the same way that a family might begin planning for when an elderly parent with escalating health issues will need to move into a nursing home.

The long-term outlook for our beloved monopoly daily is grim. In the absence of The Olympian being purchased by a deeper-pocketed overlord than its current one, The McClatchy Company, Thurston County’s most likely future is a zoned-edition of The News Tribune that includes a few token local stories.

RELATED STORY: Local journalists quite rightly defend their profession

Thus, the existential question: Should we passively accept whatever magic the marketplace bestows upon our community’s sole source of journalism provided by full-time, paid professionals? Or dare we disturb the universe by trying to build stronger alternative sources of local news?

Envirotalk participants veered toward disturbing the universe but didn’t agree about how to do so. Ideas ranged from incremental changes to launching a revolution. Here’s my take on the conversation.

If we each work a little harder everything will be just fine

A long-time blogger summed up the incrementalist option by offering to increase their output of stories. That would be more doable if readers upped their donations so this blogger could spend less time on non-journalistic ways of earning a living.

This is a terrific short-term tactic. However, one blogger — no matter how good — can’t cover everything. It will take an army of bloggers to rival even The Olympian’s current, emaciated level of news coverage. A media scene dependent upon bloggers operating independently of each other would have great trouble delivering local news in a consistent, coordinated and efficient manner.

That’s why the Great Goddess created media organizations. These structures — whether for- or non-profit — can act as the skeletal bones which give form to the journalistic body. For example, when a reporter departs the scene, there is a mechanism for replacing them. Individual journalists are coordinated so the most important news beats are consistently covered. Perhaps most crucially, the cost of managing the business side of things is amortized across the entire staff. This could significantly increase the likelihood of long-term financial success for everyone involved.

By the way, all of this “back shop” coordination does not require producing one publication; you could just as easily offer a network of websites and social media.

Blogging on a solo basis has a certain romantic appeal to it — particularly for the rugged individualists drawn to the field like a moth to a flame. Nevertheless, the chances of a blogger generating a stable, livable income — including benefits — in a small media market like ours are pretty slim.

Then why not go mano-y-mano with The Olympian?

The revolutionary idea that emerged from the Envirotalk discussion was to create a direct competitor to The Olympian. Yeah, let’s launch a daily newspaper!

That proposal was criticized by a former newspaper publisher, who itemized the enormous costs of producing even a weekly paper. This commentator’s analysis was quite astute but — like almost everyone else who comes out of the private sector — did not address one wild card: The potential role of government.

Picture, if you will, the Timberland Library District deciding to update its mission in response to the electronic revolution. One way it does so is to float a bond that raises enough money to buy The Olympian. The newspaper’s assets are then placed under the control of an independent, locally managed organization patterned along the lines of the Poynter Institute. This nonprofit publishes the Tampa Bay Times and runs a journalism training program of national stature.

Even in this rural neighborhood The Olympian is sold side by side with The News Tribune. Note the virtually identical front-page content. This is not the sign of a paper with a future.

Running a daily under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization still has financial challenges, as the Times has discovered in recent years. Like the rest of the newspaper industry, the Times has suffered from declining revenues that have resulted in deep cuts to its editorial staff. However, the Times’ journalistic operations are more stable than a newspaper run by a for-profit corporation that has Wall Street constantly looking over its shoulder. (Go here for a background piece about this remarkable newspaper).

The nonprofit option has so many potential roadblocks that it can be airily dismissed as unrealistic. I bring up the idea to remind folks that sometimes we need to think way outside the box to solve a problem. Picture those local institutions we now take for granted, such as public schools, libraries, water and sewer systems, and utility districts. Once upon a time American cities didn’t have any of them. Some hopelessly unrealistic visionaries had to invent them.

If the private sector is failing in its job of providing consistently good-quality journalism for our community, maybe it’s time for the public and nonprofit sectors to show them a better way.

Ahem (looks at watch). Isn’t there a middle-ground solution?

Funny you should ask, because that’s where the Envirotalk conversation gravitated. The general idea is to focus on building the capacity of existing independent media outlets.

Cue the above-mentioned publisher: “So, as a third generation newspaper guy (former), who owned one small paper for a decade and managed another, please forget about the traditional newspaper. Let it go. (That was painful to write.) Look to the local innovators. Support them, even if you don’t always agree, especially if you don’t always agree. Ask them to meet for coffee. Ask how you can help. Organize. Form a nonprofit that will support local journalism through grants. Don’t dictate what to write but support good writing that digs deep. To quote the Washington Post’s chilling new (old) slogan: ‘Democracy dies in darkness.'”

One tried-and-true model we could draw from is Econews, which is the publication of the Northcoast Environmental Center. Econews is run by a core staff of professionals but a goodly portion of the paper’s content is written by volunteers. How can they afford paid staff even though the publication serves northwest California, which is much poorer and more rural than Thurston County? Short answer: Econews has always had greater organizational capacity than any of Olympia’s alternative media outlets — particularly in fundraising.

Econews recognized way back in the 1970s that they couldn’t produce a quality publication with only volunteers. In contrast, Olympia’s activist culture has always had trouble with the idea of paying people (go here for further discussion). If we can’t get over that, we might as well shut up, sit back and watch the marketplace do its magic to The Olympian.


3 Comments on If The Olympian is dying, what do we do?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. But then, as the aforementioned former reporter/editor/publisher, I guess that’s to be expected.

    In the past, the private marketplace could be counted on to fill the void of local professional media. I don’t think that’s true anymore. The underlying business model is not just broken, it’s completely shattered. And emerging Information Age media biz models seemingly divorced from the need to stay in the black, those models that rely instead on traded market value, or potential value, don’t seem to pay the bills, even when tapping the national aggregate. There might be exceptions but few and far between. Too, it’s not just newspapers that are failing but the brick and mortar businesses that once supported newspapers with advertising, which itself has also completely changed and shifted to targeted online markets and predominantly to just two vehicles – Facebook and Google.

    So as we all wait for someone else to inform us, to do the research and dig deep, to hold accountable those institutions we’ve created to serve us (and which, too, seem to be failing), as we dismissively wave our collective hands and say, surely someone will figure this out, someone else will find the magic bullet to replace newspapers, as we wait as we’ve waited for a decade now, a key institution of democracy crumbles – the independent one, outside of government, unbeholden to the other three branches. An independent free press was always an imperfect ideal but in its chaos and asymmetry lay its strength. But now it can’t seem to stand in its own.

    If you don’t follow the industry you might not understand the extent to which it is failing, or think about the implications at the local level.

    And while I would like to say support your local existing newspaper for the work it still does (and I most certainly would for The Seattle Times and a number of national institutions) I can’t help but be cynical about big corporate decision-making divorced from the community when it comes to The Olympian. Let’s look at the pudding. I think it’s fair to say that, for the most part, McClatchy has abandoned Olympia. While likely out of necessity to save the larger Tacoma paper, it is still in no small degree the abandonment of a capital city newspaper. It wasn’t just consolidation, no matter how much even McClatchy tells themselves that (still?) . And this last ditch strategy seems to be failing. The Olympian is fading, has already faded dramatically, and I don’t see it ever coming back. Print is dead. Much of it at least.

    Unfortunately most of the best journalism online, especially investigative journalism, still comes from print. It certainly isn’t coming from Facebook or Google itself, or Uncle Ned’s social media account.

    But there are a few bright lights, working on a few measly watts, to shine a light in the South Sound. This is one of them.

    I don’t think anyone is coming to the rescue of local media, unless it is you who organize, who give, who support those few who, from some sense of civic duty, sacrifice having a life to hold the flashlight. And really, it just can’t be an all volunteer, nights and weekends, working three jobs, diy, kind of thing – not if you expect a replacement for the broader watchdog role of legacy media, however imperfect, across a wide swath of institutions. Professional journalism is, well, professional. People have to be paid. They’ve got to eat.

    No one is coming to the rescue. Unless you do. Supporting local media, and independent national voices who are telling it like it is, corporate or otherwise, is now part of the resistance.

    So, Green Pages, how can the community support your efforts? What could you do, what would you do, with a full-time paid journalist on staff? What would that take?

    • Fund-raising and grant-writing require time and money,too, Tom. Is there a third way? KNKX was successful in raising the millions to buy the radio station. Perhaps Green Pages can ride their coat tails? No easy answer, but thanks for this OP ED.

  2. Tom, it starts wth developing a nonprofit board with the skills and passion for small-scale media. The mindset needed to run a media outlet is meaningfully different than that for a typical activist group. The board should be the driver for a long-term strategy linked to a fundraising plan. That may sound like an overly bureaucratic answer, but this is what has been most missing in Olympia’s alternative media scene.

    Good journalism doesn’t come out of nowhere — it needs institutional support in a variety of ways . . . that the activist community has all too often ignored.

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