Black&white photo of newspaper delivery boys, probably in the early 1900s.

By Jacqui Banaszynski

A hopeful-news detour from a study of the art and craft of story work, to the shaky business that supports that work. In this case, To summarize it, I borrow from our sister publication, Nieman Reports:

A nonpartisan group of 22 foundations today announced the launch of Press Forward, a nationwide coalition committing more than $500 million over five years to help reinvigorate local news in America.

I urge you to read the full story, written by Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which is one of the project’s funders. There’s also a good overview from the MacArthur Foundation, another major funder. Both include the discouraging statistics about the news deserts expanding across the U.S. as local news outlets are gutted or closed altogether. Both outline the goals of the project, which include direct support to individual local journalism sites as well as advances in technology that can be of benefit to all.

To say this is huge is an understatement. To say this is just a start, as both pieces note, is a necessary caution. Even a half-billion (that’s billion with a B) dollars isn’t enough to stabilize and save journalism for the long haul. And while this may seem like a self-serving mission on the part of those directly invested in that mission, make no mistake: Saving and sustaining journalism is no less than saving and sustaining a functional democracy.

That latter connection is not preached about in either of the overviews linked above. It’s my editorial comment, but one that I see, sadly, proven out again and again and again. When independent local journalism wanes and dies, so does active engagement in a shared, civil society. Voting goes down. Fewer people and/or less qualified people run for public office. Corruption goes unchecked. (Just read ProPublica’s recent story about the Louisiana sheriff who, for years, has been destroying accounts of deputies’ alleged abuses, and the related story about all the Louisiana sheriffs who regularly violate public records laws, making themselves unaccountable to the public. You can bet this isn’t just happening in Louisiana.)

I don’t want to preach, either. It’s redundant to those who share these views — and this knowledge. It alienates those who have fallen into the deepening sinkholes of disinformation. I simply want to thank the folks and foundations who are making Press Forward happen. Taking a strong and united stand against the erosion of independent, public service journalism is overdue — and, dare I say, an inspiration to keep the faith.

I spent my career in local newspapers. That was a choice; when I had the chance to go to the national mastheads, I realized I really wanted to report, write and edit for people in communities I knew and loved. I wanted to help people know their neighbors, know their shared problems, find shared solutions, make those communities better. I also have never believed that the size of masthead or circulation defines the size of our journalism.

I can’t imagine my days without what I learn from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, ProPublica. But I start each day where I live most fully, with the Seattle Times. I grieve for cities I’ve lived in and loved that are now ill-served by the corporate raiders and hedge funds that have left stellar local newspapers gasping for survival until there is not a penny left to be squeezed from them.

Support for news and narrative

Now I am preaching, so enough! The last thought I offer will, I hope, wrap back to Storyboard’s focus on the art and craft of story work. The kind of work we feature is usually, though not exclusively, creative, in-depth non-fiction storytelling. Many equate Storyboard’s mission with “narrative” in its many forms. I try to expand it beyond that, but acknowledge that our lens is not pointed at the necessary information that makes up local news reports.

I use the word “necessary” with intent. Many in the Storyboard community strive to do work that springs from but then goes beyond those necessary daily reports. I always thrilled at the clarity and purpose that came with reporting and writing daily news, but something in me needed to stretch beyond that. I was of that generation of newsroom journalists who heard, again and again, that the kind of stories I fought to do were considered luxuries, and that luxury was not something struggling newspapers could afford.

It would take another too-long yammer to spool out how much I disagree with the notion of deep, creative, compelling journalism as optional journalism. Maybe another time.

For now, I’m hunting for addresses so I can send proper (hand-written) thank-you notes to the people leading Press Forward. It is only if that foundational role of journalism survives and thrives that we can know and pursue the stories that we long to do — the stories that put necessary information in a context of complexity, meaning and humanity.

Further Reading