When I got my first job as a reporter, I knew I was not entering a career field that would make me wealthy. Even in 1976 it was hard to stretch $100 a month very far.
But like my fellow journalists I was confident that I could count on always having a job. Conventional wisdom held that local newspapers were so indispensable to our society — so critical to keeping the community informed, engaged and self-aware — that they were like the Treasury Bills of employers.
We had the first part right, and still do. But with the benefit of hindsight everyone can see the flaw in our logic: community value and financial stability are not the same thing. Too often they’re not even related. And, of course, the newspaper industry has been going downhill in a hurry for several years. The existence of a website called “Newspaper Death Watch” is not a good omen.
As a college student I witnessed a golden age of the industry. It was the era of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers when the Washington Post and New York Times were daily breaking huge stories of enormous public import on the largest possible stages. No crime, corruption or malfeasance was safe from the glare of the spotlight, even at the highest levels of government.
The same was true in Wyoming, though on a lower-profile, when I started reporting here. Newsrooms around the state teemed with reporters and editors, each hungry, each digging, each striving daily to uncover the facts in the public interest. Idealism and professionalism were big drivers, but you can’t underestimate rivalry and competition among papers as motivating factors too. The effect was a more knowledgeable and effective citizenry with a more transparent and responsive government.
Today’s Wyoming press corp is a skeleton crew by comparison. That’s no knock on the hardworking pros who comprise it — they do wonders with what they have. But there’s just no substitute for raw numbers and person-power. It’s no coincidence that the Center for Public Integrity ranks Wyoming dead last for access to public information.
The Casper Star-Tribune, to cite one example, had a full-time reporter in Washington, D.C. when I worked there, and a two-person capital bureau in Cheyenne. During legislative sessions up to three of our reporters would “parachute” into the Capitol Building to work on issues they covered full time. The paper closed its capital bureau and now has one reporter covering the Legislature each session in person, with only the occasional backup from Casper.
During the most recent legislative session WyoFile, the Star-Tribune and Wyoming Tribune Eagle were the only regular press room inhabitants from the print journalism world — the AP and Jackson Hole News&Guide also made occasional appearances. That’s a far cry from the hordes that used to throng the capital from nearly every paper in the state decades ago.
There isn’t a single full-time Washington correspondent in the state, and there hasn’t been for years.
Thinking of the opacity in Cheyenne, to say nothing of the scandal machine that is the Trump administration, makes me shudder. What’s going unreported for lack of hands on deck?
It’s not Wyoming’s problem alone. Thousands of talented journalists have either left the business in frustration or been unable to find work, including Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Ryan Kelly, who now works at a Virginia brewery. The Salt Lake Tribune recently laid off about a third of its newsroom staff. The Denver post did too. Between 2000 and 2016, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported, more than half of all newspaper jobs disappeared.
Some of the losses can be chalked up to corporate consolidation. The Casper Star-Tribune, owned by Lee Enterprises, a national chain of papers in small markets, outsourced its circulation department to a Lee paper in Billings, Mont. Page designer jobs were eliminated in favor of having the work done at universal design desks in other cities.
The industry-wide bloodbath has led to a brave new world in the profession and a number of creative solutions. One near and dear to my heart has been the rise of independent, nonprofit journalism outlets like WyoFile that rely directly on member support and give their stories away for free.
Another, that I’m still trying to get my mind around, has been increased collaboration and cooperation among legacy papers.
Since last October about 30 weekly and daily Wyoming newspapers have joined the Wyoming News Exchange under the auspices of the Wyoming Press Association. The venture is run by Jim Angell, former WPA executive director and Associated Press writer, and his wife Mary, also a reporter and editor. It lets papers share and publish one another’s stories.
The idea of the Star-Tribune and Tribune-Eagle combining forces and sharing news stories was once completely unthinkable at both newspapers. Several now-deceased editors I worked for would be rolling in their graves at the thought of giving articles to competitors.
I’ve always believed competition is needed for newspapers to develop the best possible content they can. As editor of the Wyoming Eagle in Cheyenne in the late 1980s, I fought hard to keep the Tribune and Eagle from merging their news staffs. It happened in the ‘90s after I left. For decades journalists have been fueled by the desire to break a story first.
But the situation has changed. With staff sizes having shrunk to bare-bones proportions, publishers have to find new ways to keep the public informed. What was once viewed as necessary competition can now be seen as duplication of effort that Wyoming and its papers can ill afford. The WNE makes stories available to other papers in the network as soon as they appear on the web, so a reporter’s work may be published the same day in different papers. The news exchange also distributes WyoFile stories to the state’s papers.
That doesn’t mean journalists don’t try to get a story first, and when they do it’s still a source of pride. If there are two simultaneous legislative meetings, it makes sense for two publications to agree to each send a reporter to one of them so both are covered. But it seems wrong.
In an interview Angell pointed out some advantages. Small and large weeklies that don’t have the money to obtain news from the Associated Press can publish articles verbatim that originated in the dailies. Updated technology allows news to travel quickly to all parts of the state and keeps people better informed about what’s happening in Wyoming.
I’ve known the Angells for more than 30 years, and I’m happy their venture has become successful so quickly. It fills a niche largely created by continuing financial problems at most Wyoming newspapers, and I hope they can expand the WNE even further.
But it’s probably better that I no longer work for a corporate media company. One of the most satisfying parts of my job was ending the day talking to a rival reporter over a beverage and sharing how we either scooped or were scooped by the other. We’d also play some mind games by hinting about what we were working on next, but not sharing enough information so the other could figure it out.
It was fun. And it provided a way for us to cope with the fact we weren’t getting rich doing our jobs, but we always knew the next day the competition would continue. I think some cooperation is good, and today perhaps even necessary.
But beating a friend or a rival to a story? Priceless.