Opinion: Deep journalism still matters in the Twitter age

Protest

Lorie Shaull/CC Flickr

Students in the Washington, D.C., area demand gun reform in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

Editor’s note: The following piece originally went out via email as a letter to the readers of High Country News from HCN Publisher Paul Larmer. It is reprinted here by permission. We think it says some important things about the state of American journalism, and we think High Country News is worthy of your support.

 It’s been more than a decade since Google, Facebook, Twitter and the like took over our information landscape. Yet, for all social media’s marvels, we are just now coming to grips with how it not only accelerates the news cycle — how many times have you checked your phone for “breaking news” in the last 24 hours? — but also facilitates the spread of misinformation meant to sow distrust and division within our society.

The rise of social media, and its absorption of a large chunk of the advertising market that used to be carried by news outlets, has not coincidentally occurred as mainstream media has dramatically diminished.

From 1990 to 2016, the number of newspaper employees in the United States dropped from 456,300 to about 183,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just this month, the Denver Post’s hedge fund owners announced another 30 cuts to its newsroom of fewer than 100 journalists. And the jobs that remain are increasingly concentrated on the coasts: In 2014, almost one out of five U.S. reporters worked in New York, Washington or Los Angeles, compared with one in eight in 2004.

“Isn’t it likely that this contributed to the media missing the two biggest stories of the past few years — the rise of the opioid epidemic in middle America and the political strength of Donald Trump?” wrote Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

Waldman and Sennot have co-founded Report for America, a sort of Peace Corps for journalists, which hopes to repopulate the media desert with 1,000 reporters in understaffed newsrooms by 2022. Of the early applicants to the program, Waldman told the New York Times,“There’s an idealistic desire to help communities, and there’s a sense of adventure. They want to try and save democracy.” I wish them luck.

More and more people are recognizing the critical importance of good old boots-on-the-ground journalism to a functioning democratic society.

At a recent gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico, High Country News readers told me that while they are deeply concerned about climate change, the suppression of science and regulatory rollbacks in the Trump administration, and the opening up of public lands to oil and gas drillers and other private interests, they are most concerned about the deterioration of respectful civil dialogue and democratic processes, including voting.

They are especially concerned about our young people, who not only are fully immersed in reality-distorting social media, but are not getting the basic civics education we used to expect from our schools. One reader said she had regained some hope the week before at a gun violence rally led by students in Santa Fe: “It was totally inspiring to see such passionate, eloquent young people speaking up for their future.”

High Country News is reaching out directly to the next generation through our HCNU Classroom Program, which provided 6,000 free, short-term print subscriptions and thousands more digital subscriptions to students in 2017, giving them regular doses of deeply reported stories.

We are also training the next generation of journalists, through our intern and fellow program, and by providing some of them longer-term employment at HCN as editorial staff. These up-and-coming  journalists are passionate about watchdogging the West for you and telling authentic stories that can move society in positive directions — a mission we’ve been on for 48 years now.

We wouldn’t have been around this long without readers like you, who recognize the value of independent news, and are willing to support it financially. People like new subscriber Jeff Sprague of Colfax, California, who recently wrote to us:

“I love the American West, yet I approached your magazine with initial skepticism; I’m so weary of the biased, divisive, and manipulative reporting that I have come to associate with most publications that target conservative or rural America. How refreshing to find reporting that simply lays out the facts, explains the effects, and occasionally polices the BS. Your own obvious love of the West, combined with unemotional, intelligent, and just plain common-sense writing, has earned you a new fan. Keep it up!”

HCN is able to provide you with rock-solid reporting because we don’t rely on click-bait advertisers or ideological billionaires. We rely on citizens like you who want to see a strong press doing its job.

In the coming months, battles over energy development, public lands, wildlife, unaffordable housing and health care, rural economies, immigration and climate change will intensify across the West.

With you behind us, our talented staff editors and writers will be there, providing an important antidote to today’s toxic media free-for-all. We will keep producing carefully reported, deeply informative stories that inspire lasting solutions for our region.

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