Today's Salem City Club program featured two local journalists, Les Zaitz, editor of the Salem Reporter, and Dick Hughes, who used to be the editorial page editor for the Statesman Journal and now is a freelance journalist.
The title of the program was "The Truth -- An Endangered Species?" But since journalists deal in the truth, and local journalism is struggling, Zaitz and Hughes made clear that the question really is whether local newspapers and other news sources are endangered.
Hughes started off by sharing some disturbing statistics. (Hopefully I've got them mostly right, since I'm just a blogger with terrible handwriting who now has to try to read his scribbled notes.)
Fifty-six percent of people say they aren't willing to pay for online news. Since 2005 a quarter of the nation's newspapers have been lost. Oregon has lost a lot; I recall it was a third. The Statesman Journal recently laid off education reporter Natalie Pate, having cut newsroom staffing by two-thirds. The pages of the Statesman Journal are laid out in Phoenix, Arizona. The Statesman Journal is printed elsewhere, which helps explain why our daily newspaper contains news that is mostly a day late.
Zaitz began his remarks by saying, "We're all in trouble. Any questions?" Thankfully, he expanded on that conclusion.
Zaitz noted that media are a check on government power. When government controls information, it controls the people. Sadly, though, only 34% of the public trusts the media, with 38% not trusting the media.
There's a political divide here. Seventy percent of Democrats have some trust, while five-sixths of Republicans don't trust the media. Gosh, I wonder how they came to that conclusion. Methinks it has a lot to do with the guy Biden defeated in 2020.
Another reason this number is so low, Zaitz theorized, is that cable networks have betrayed America. Their mission is to present our country as being in a constant state of crisis, as that keeps people returning for their latest dose of gotcha journalism, which is always looking for scandals and corruption.
Zaitz sees the New York Times and Washington Post as contributing in their own way to the downfall of journalism, since he considers that opinions enter into their news stories. I subscribe to both the Times and Post, and sort of see what he's getting at, but I find that the line between a reporter engaging in wise analysis (good) and biased opinionating (bad) to be blurry.
There are fewer journalists than ever in this country, Zaitz said. That means fewer editors also, and reporters need to work with editors for a quality product. This is one reason journalists are making more mistakes now.
Since journalists believe in truth, accuracy, and fairness, mistakes bother them. Journalists should be transparent, admitting to mistakes when they occur. Zaitz urged people to let a reporter know if they got something wrong.
In the question and answer period, Zaitz and Hughes agreed that it's a problem when Google, Facebook, and other internet news sources borrow stories from newspapers and other media without paying for them.
Zaitz noted in response to a question about the Salem Reporter's effort to get documents from the City of Salem about a payment made under suspicious circumstances to a retiring police department employee that charging an exorbitant amount for public records is almost the same as denying the request.
I asked a question of Hughes about why the Statesman Journal did away with the opinion section completely, even though seemingly that section would largely write itself through letters to the editor and guest opinions.
Hughes said that the newspaper's reasoning could have been that people don't want to be told what to think, though this strikes me as an exceedingly lame excuse, given that no one is forced to read opinion pieces, just as my wife never reads the sports section.
I find the lack of an opinion section to be a huge loss for the Statesman Journal. I still pay $10 a month for an online subscription, since 33 cents a day seems about all the Statesman Journal is worth these days.
As Hughes said in response to another question about reading things you disagree with, sometimes you agree with what you read on an editorial page and sometimes what you read makes your blood boil. Which is as it should be.
But not in Salem, since neither the Statesman Journal nor the Salem Reporter has an opinion section. That's one reason why I have an online subscription to the Oregonian.
A core message of Zaitz and Hughes is that when it comes to news, basically you get what you pay for. Journalists can't work for free. I'm pleased to pay for a subscription to the Salem Reporter because it does a good job with local news. I'm less pleased to pay for an online subscription to the Statesman Journal, because it falters with local news.
So whenever possible, pay for the news you're getting. If everyone comes to think that they should be able to get news for free from the internet, that really will be the death knell for local journalism.