By Ben Shors and Douglas Blanks Hindman, Murrow College of Communication

PULLMAN, Wash. – The decline in the number of journalists working in the Pacific Northwest threatens to undermine civic engagement, government accountability and the public’s knowledge of local communities, according to a panel of national experts convened by Washington State University and the Seattle Times.

“I think what we see happening is that we’re losing in some places the muscle memory of local news,” said Ken Doctor, a national media analyst and author. “A whole generation is growing up not even understanding what that’s all about.”

WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and the Seattle Times brought together dozens of regional and national news media leaders last week to discuss the seismic changes that have staggered traditional media in the past decade.

Diverse ownership, government aid proposed

journalism-panelists
Some of the participants in the April 3 media roundtable.

The late WSU President Elson S. Floyd funded the roundtable to improve and enhance journalism in the Pacific Northwest.

“Elson understood the critical role of journalism in American society,” said Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Murrow College. “That was reflected in his vision to create the Murrow College eight years ago and his request a few months before his death that we convene this gathering.”

Frank Blethen, publisher and chief executive officer of the Seattle Times, said corporate consolidation has undermined the industry and threatened cities and towns that depend on local journalists to cover their communities. He called for diverse ownership of news media and suggested government intervention may be needed to protect and support local media.

“It is essential to democracy that information is free and ubiquitously available for little or no cost,” said Blethen, whose family founded the Times in 1896.

At the same time that many regional news outlets were purchased by national ownership, changes in digital media have upended newsrooms across the region and the country.

Online ad revenue benefits few

More than half of readers today seek news through mobile devices, and that number is expected to climb to 75 percent by 2018, according to Doctor.

Mobile use has spurred Internet advertising revenue, which reached $50 billion in 2014, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau Revenue report. Though 2015 numbers are still being compiled, they are expected to top all previous highs, the report states.

The jump in online advertising has benefited a handful of companies. About 70 percent of the ad revenues go to 10 companies, none of which produces news content. For example, Google received 42 percent of digital advertising, Doctor said.

Newspapers and television industries are behind in the transition to digital advertising. Newspapers, which received about 20 percent of advertising revenue in the pre-Internet days, now receive 7 percent of the $50 billion market in digital advertising. Television stations used to receive 60 percent of advertising revenues. Now, their digital revenue claims only 5 percent of the digital total.

“That is why we have seen the cratering of the local newspaper industry,” Doctor said.

This year, the number of journalists working in the United States will be 28,000, which is about half the number that were employed in 1990, Doctor said. Pressure is growing on companies like Google and Facebook to share that revenue with content providers, he said.

Newspaper videos, radio attempt innovation

The move to mobile platforms has again forced media companies to adjust how they prepare content for viewers, said Mark Briggs, Seattle’s KING 5 TV digital director.

“The mobile consumer wants a different type of video content than what we’re putting on television,” Briggs said, adding, “The dollars are definitely there.”

Kathy Best, editor of the Seattle Times, said her newspapers create video content that is a departure from what has traditionally been produced by regional television newsrooms.

“It was a very different storytelling form,” she said. “It’s one of the few advantages that newspapers have — we don’t have to unlearn old video habits.”

Jarl Mohn, president and CEO of National Public Radio, said NPR is looking to capitalize on those changes, drawing on more than 1,500 radio journalists across the country. The move to mobile platforms provides an opening for radio to extend its reach.

“We want to be the largest and the best newsgathering and storytelling newsroom in the United States,” Mohn said. “We think we have to be on all the platforms. We have to be where our listeners are.”

Nonprofit newsroom in seventh year

Evan Hansen, head of content labs at San Francisco-based Medium.com, said that many technology companies have succeeded by being unafraid to place “small bets” and then selecting only those ideas that show promise.

“The technologists are groping along in the dark, the same as you guys,” Hansen told the group. “The number of ideas we have considered and abandoned in the past three years is mind-boggling.”

When Evan Smith noticed a decline in political coverage in Texas, he decided to place one of those bets — he launched a nonprofit and nonpartisan newsroom in 2009. Smith, the founder of the Texas Tribune, tries to engage and inform the state’s citizens; Texas traditionally has among the lowest rates of voter turnout in the country.

“In our case, the problem we’re trying to solve is woefully low civic engagement,” Smith said. His online, nonpartisan, investigative reporting publication is supported by foundations, subscribers and up to 52 special events on college campuses throughout the year.

He said that support allows the Texas Tribune to publish award-winning investigative reports in cooperation with the New York Times and Pro-Publica. Texas state legislators now talk about the Tribune’s effect on legislative hearings. According to Smith, when a reporter is present, the lawmakers know they will be held accountable.