Before we rush to solutions, we should ask what we are looking for
By Matt Witt
The end of the Mail Tribune’s troubled relationship with the Rogue Valley made me think of advice my mother gave me many years ago.
When a lover or partner leaves you, she said, that’s not the time to rush into someone else’s arms “on the rebound.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to step back and ask yourself what you are looking for.
That’s particularly true in this case. One of the many reasons for the Mail Tribune’s demise was not meeting our community’s needs to the extent that enough people felt compelled to maintain a subscription.
No one knows what kind of outlet (or outlets) will fill the void, but we can use this moment to think about what we want from any alternatives that emerge.
In that spirit, here, in no particular order of importance, are a few of the questions we might ask.
Will it be independent? In recent years, hundreds of nonprofit news outlets have been successfully established throughout the U.S. By relying on individual contributors and grants, they often are more able to resist the need to avoid offending major advertisers and other wealthy interests.
Will it report on root causes, and avoid “news bias”? “News bias” means the practice of concentrating on individual incidents rather than providing information and analysis about underlying trends.
For example, most outlets will repeat “news” from local police about a petty crime committed by a homeless person, but not do much reporting on why homelessness has become a problem, what homeless people are up against, whether current responses are actually working, or possible alternative solutions.
Will it avoid “status quo bias”? “Status quo bias” means reporting statements by public officials, corporate spokespeople, or other institutions at face value without providing context – so that readers are given the impression that there is no other possible viewpoint.
Take as an example the announcement last year that Jackson County’s financial reserves grew by $63 million from fiscal year 2018-2019 to the most recent budget, with about two-thirds of the increase coming from the COVID-19 relief package adopted by Congress.
The Mail Tribune report was headlined, “Jackson County adopts healthy budget,” with quotes from each of the county commissioners praising the increase. The article provided only that possible frame. It left no room for readers to wonder how and why officials chose to prioritize growth in reserves while residents and small businesses were suffering from the effects of the pandemic and the Almeda and Obenchain fires, or what the county is saving that money for.
Will it go beyond “he said, she said” journalism? Most outlets seem to believe they have done their job if they report what “both sides” said on some issue, even if one or both have said something that is demonstrably misleading or simply false. If, for example, a developer claims that his company wouldn’t be able to afford a particular fee or requirement that has been proposed, readers need to know whether that is actually true or not.
Will it “follow the money”? As I used to tell students when I taught journalism at American University, reporters should routinely ask, “Who benefits, and who loses?”
For example, when local governments prioritize major construction projects or make changes in land use or development policies, readers have a right to know who is profiting from those decisions, and what their political, economic, and social connections may be.
As another example, one of the candidates for Oregon state senator from the Rogue Valley in the most recent election received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from companies like Koch Industries, Idaho Power Co., Kroger, Anheuser-Busch, International Paper, the parent company of Philip Morris, and from the national political action committees for the pharmaceutical, chemical, and insurance industries. This, in addition to Oregon-based PACs for the logging, trucking, and real estate industries. But the Mail Tribune didn’t tell readers about those contributors and what issues before the legislature might be of special interest to them.
Will it look at issues through a class, race, and gender lens? Without making an extra effort, news outlets will disproportionately reflect the activities, concerns, and views of those who have more power, economic resources, and formal education. Overcoming class, racial, and gender bias requires conscious decisions not only with regard to staffing but in choosing topics, story angles, and people to interview.
After the fires here in 2020, for example, it took coverage by national outlets to shine a light on the devastating impact on Latinx families, and they have been mostly invisible in local coverage since.
Real journalism is hard work and takes extensive resources. I don’t know what may fill the void left by the Mail Tribune, Tidings, and Rogue Valley Messenger. I doubt that it will be a printed publication, and I am guessing that it won’t be a news outlet that by its nature is primarily focused on a narrower market like Grants Pass or Ashland.
No outlet will be perfect and will meet community needs all the time. But whether you agree with the list above or have your own criteria, it does seem like a good time for community discussion about what we are looking for.
Matt Witt is a writer and photographer in Talent.