This piece is an extract from "Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest: Why It Matters, How It’s Evolving, and Who Pays for It," a report by Damian Radcliffe, supported and published in September 2017 by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon. It is republished here with permission.
Along with embracing new formats for journalism and storytelling, local journalists in the Pacific Northwest – and elsewhere – are re-examining some of their approaches to and philosophies about the practice of journalism.
Notably, we are witnessing discussions around topics such as advocacy/politics and the end of objectivity, and engagement with new styles of storytelling such as solutions journalism.
This article provides a snapshot of some of the discussions I had with interviewees about emerging issues related to the exercise of their craft.
Objectivity and distance
The idea that journalists need to be detached from their community—lest it influence their reporting—is beginning to change.
One journalist who discussed his evolving stance on this issue is Lou Brancaccio, editor emeritus of the Vancouver Columbian. He explains, "I used to believe that people in the newsroom should keep their distance from the community."
Brancaccio’s rationale, which was by no means unique, stemmed from a recognition that it might be difficult (or perceived to be difficult) to criticise people and organisations you are close to. Similarly, journalists may also be open to criticism that positive coverage and analysis is the product of close personal and professional relationships, rather than journalistic objectivity.
He says: "I gradually figured out that I had a life to live as well and that I just had to make sure that I uphold my principles and that my credibility was still the most important thing to me. And, you know, Mayor Leavitt of Vancouver is a friend a mine, but I’ve beaten him up plenty of times when I thought he’d done stupid stuff. It’s just the way it is."
Some other journalists and outlets have, historically, been more relaxed about these types of relationships. John Costa, president and publisher of the Bend Bulletin (Oregon) noted how "the founder of this paper, near the end of his life, gave the stock to his children, but he gave the rest of his estate to the Oregon Community Foundation in his name."
This act imbued the spirit of the paper, whereby many people – on both the editorial and business side of the newspaper – are actively involved in their local community.
"The numbers of people in this building who are out doing something that is without any compensation, that is aimed at making it a better society, is staggering," Costa says.
According to Costa, staff at the Bulletin are involved in everything from health programs for single mothers to court assistance initiatives, fundraising for good causes, and organisations like Rotary, the Bend Chamber of Commerce, and Little League teams.
"I spent an awful lot of time and energy on the original committee that started the construction [and] that brought OSU Cascades [Oregon State University’s Bend campus] here... My wife was on symphony boards... We’re all part of organisations that really get out there and try and do things," Costa says.
Shifts in journalistic thinking and practice can also be seen in the emergence of solutions journalism.
In a 2013 blog post, Courtney Martin, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, "an independent, non-profit organisation working to legitimise and spread the practice of solutions journalism," addressed the question: "What is Solutions Journalism?"
"Solutions journalism is rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. It investigates and explains, in a critical and clear-eyed way, examples of people working toward solutions. It focuses not just on what may be working, but how and why it appears to be working, or alternatively, why it may be stumbling."
"It’s not about making people feel good or advocating for a certain policy or balancing out the ‘doom-and-gloom,’" she wrote. "Instead, solutions journalism is about what journalism has always been about: informing and empowering people."
What’s different, she suggests, is that "we’re just asking journalists to do that in a more complete way, by investigating what has worked just as rigorously and relentlessly as what hasn’t."
One major proponent of solutions journalism in the Pacific Northwest is the Seattle Times, which works with the Solutions Journalism Network on its Education Lab project.
Education Lab reporter Claudia Rowe has argued that with solutions journalism, "the idea is not to change minds; it’s to show possibilities."
Sharon Chan, vice president of innovation, product, and development at the Seattle Times, identifies one example of how this approach was brought to a story about "school discipline that doesn’t deprive students of their education."
As she admits, "the more traditional way to write it now would have been to write about these formal racial disparities in the way discipline is applied."
Instead the paper took a different approach. Chan explains: "We went out and covered promising approaches, and then we had two events: One was a solutions workshop with 40 stakeholders, and then we had a town hall with about 200 people.
"Both of those [events] heavily featured the voices of educators themselves, students themselves, principals themselves, as opposed to us getting up on stage and talking."
The impact of this work "resulted in two major pieces of legislative action at the state level," Chan says.
The Solutions Journalism Network provides a "story tracker" database that offers searchable examples of this type of journalism being produced around the world.
Examples of other solutions-led reporting from the Pacific Northwest region, captured by the tracker, include a feature on "Why Seattle cops and social workers walk the beat together" from KUOW (a public radio station in Puget Sound, Washington, and Southern British Columbia), a story by Seattle-based tech website GeekWire on "Finding affordable, innovative ways to harness technology to combat homelessness," and an OPB feature on how "The answer to Oregon’s $8 billion health problem lies in 1970s Maine."
Meanwhile, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism was one of the first J-schools in the United States to teach solutions journalism, and in summer 2017 it launched the Catalyst Journalism Project to "teach students how to combine the traditional methods of investigative journalism with the innovative practice of solutions journalism."
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