Salish Current is hosting two nationally known journalists and Washington’s attorney general in a free online forum next month, to address the importance of local journalism to democracy, and its role in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties.
The forum, “Trust 2022: Why Independent Local News is Important to a Strong Democracy,” features Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, Pulitzer-winning New York Times alum Hedrick Smith, and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
The issue is urgent. The numbers of journalists and news outlets in the United States have decreased drastically since the turn of the century. The vacuum has allowed the rise of bias and misinformation on internet news sites and is widely blamed for some of the division and extremism of American political life.
The event is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, and is in partnership with Village Books of Bellingham and Lynden. Registration is required, and is free of charge. More information is at salish-current.org/events.
A donation of $100 or more with registration will support local news from nonprofit Salish Current and entitles participants to a free book by Sullivan or Smith, while supplies last.
News, power and politics
Sullivan is the author of “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” She was editor of the Buffalo News, served twice as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and has taught at Columbia University and City University of New York.
Smith wrote the 2012 pioneering book “Who Stole the American Dream?” which examined the rise of economic inequality, and “The Power Game: How Washington Works,” in 1987. The veteran journalist won a Pulitzer Prize as part of the team that broke the Pentagon Papers story during the Vietnam War, and then a second Pulitzer as a New York Times correspondent in Russia. He has also worked on more than 50 PBS documentaries including “The Democracy Rebellion,” which showed how local citizens have organized for political reform.
Ferguson is a fourth-generation Washingtonian whose family homesteaded on the Skagit River. The attorney general has won national attention for his work on progressive legal issues, including successfully blocking President Trump’s first executive order banning travel by Muslims from seven countries and suing a Richland florist on behalf of a same-sex couple. The avid hiker has summited the highest peak in 45 of the 50 states and is an internationally rated chess master.
He led a bipartisan coalition of 15 state attorney generals who signed a letter to Congress supporting the Local Journalism Sustainability Act of 2021.
Ghosts and deserts
The three speakers are expected to discuss the crisis of “ghost newspapers,” in which local news staffs are depleted by chain owners such as hedge funds, and “news deserts,” in which rural areas lose newspapers entirely.
The Bellingham Herald is owned by the McClatchy publishing company, which is in turn owned by New Jersey hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. The Skagit Valley Herald is owned by the Minnesota-based Adams News Group. Both newspapers have struggled with the erosion of advertising revenue and smaller news staffs.
From 2004 to 2019, daily and weekly news readership in the United States declined 37% and in the same period newsroom employment fell 51%, estimates Pew Research. More than 2,000 weeklies have disappeared across the United States during the decline, according to Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nonprofit newsroom Salish Current is one attempt to help fill the news vacuum in Northwest Washington, and has been in publication since February 2020, serving Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties. Whatcom County entrepreneur David Syre has stepped in as well, launching Bellingham-based Cascadia Daily News in January.
The March 17 forum addresses ways to bolster local news organizations and rebuild trust in democratic institutions. It will also discuss how community support for nonprofit, independent community newsrooms such as Salish Current is a potential remedy. The Current is free online and accepts no advertising.
Nationally, the number of nonprofit local news outlets had grown to more than 250 over the past few decades, engaging 2,000-plus journalists. Examples in Washington include Salish Current, Crosscut, InvestigateWest, Key Peninsula News and Grist.
— Contributed by William Dietrich
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