The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.
Much attention has been paid to the news of the police raid at the Marion County Record in Kansas in early August.
Few of us in Washington know much about what happens in Marion County, an hour and a half southwest of Topeka and home to fewer than 12,000 people. The last time national attention focused on that portion of Kansas was in 2010, over construction of the controversial Keystone Pipeline.
Like other local newspapers across the country, though, the Record keeps its readers up to date on community events and developments — decisions by elected officials, goings-on in the schools and the ups and downs of local business, including, most recently, the 50th anniversary of a local furniture store and an area dairy’s award-winning cheese. With its newsroom across the street from the county courthouse, the Record also provides a weekly accounting of the administration of justice in Marion County.
The Record is representative of many newspapers in the nation — including the Salish Current.
Which is why the events that continue to play out in that Midwestern newsroom should remind us of the critical service local newspapers provide their communities.
Why does this matter?
Over the past 15 years, the nation has lost a quarter of its local newspapers and is on track to lose a third of them by 2025, according to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
The decline has hit Washington, too. The state has lost one-fifth of its newspapers and newsroom staffing has decreased by two-thirds, exceeding the national decline of about half.
Again, why does this matter?
Research by the League of Women Voters of Washington and others tells us local newspapers are critical to healthy communities. “The Decline of Local News and Its Impact on Democracy,” which the League published earlier this year, has linked the loss of a community’s newspaper with higher government costs, reduced voter participation, reductions in the number of candidates for local office, increased political polarization and less effective public health campaigns.
But when a local newspaper is robust and independent, it acts as a watchdog, keeping an eye on the work of government and politicians, allowing the rest of us to sleep more soundly. Through its coverage of community events, a healthy local paper cultivates greater civic engagement, meaning people feel more connected with one another. It is good for our democracy.
All of this is why members of the League of Women Voters throughout Washington are involved in efforts to support local news and expand awareness of the challenges facing newspapers, in print and online.
In Whatcom County, League member Linda Hughes has served for the past two years on the state committee that produced the 135-page “Decline of Local News” study. Hughes and her colleagues looked at recent changes in Bellingham, including reductions at The Bellingham Herald and the births of the Salish Current and Cascadia Daily News.
The addition of the two publications gives Hughes hope.
“Since the inception of the Salish Current and the Cascadia Daily News, we have seen a significant increase in local coverage of the environment, politics and civic and education issues, all subjects that are so valuable to community members,” she said.
In Skagit County, meanwhile, Wende Sanderson, past president of the local League of Women Voters, facilitated a public event at Mount Vernon High School in mid-May focusing on the future of local journalism and its importance to democracy. The event featured journalists from four local newspapers discussing the crisis and high school debate students considering the topic: “A thriving democracy is dependent on a local news source.”
And a little more than a year ago, the League of Women Voters of the San Juans, under the guidance of board member Necia Quast, launched an Observer Corps, a program of League members who attend and report on local government meetings to help fill the void left by diminished local newspaper coverage.
The observers regularly provide summaries of decisions, discussions and public comments of the San Juan County Council, the Friday Harbor Town Council, the Friday Port Commission, the San Juan Island School Board, the San Juan Island Public Hospital District, the San Juan County Board of Health, and the San Juan Island Fire District.
The Journal of the San Juans and the San Juan Islander publish the notes and the Salish Current publishes links to the notes, which are posted on the LWV website. The Observer Corps has been praised by community members and sought after to provide additional coverage.
These efforts give hope to us, members of a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending democracy and empowering voters.
— Contributed by Mary Coltrane and Dee Anne Finken
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