Wyoming will benefit from trend toward independent journalism
By Nadia White
— September 4, 2014
I teach journalism. And it’s not unusual that a parent tagging along with their high school student on a tour of our school asks me, as though morally outraged: How can you teach that, isn’t it dying?
I love that question. I love it for the same reason I am passionate about serving on the board of directors for WyoFile.com. I teach, and I work with WyoFile.com, because now is the time. This is the place. A new wave of journalism is the answer. Our shared democracy is what’s at stake. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that. Bring me your students, your audience, your tired eyes. Together, we’ll see what we can build for tomorrow.
I understand the source of the question: In the last 12 years at least 55,000 traditional newsroom jobs have been lost. Entire news organizations – once the pillars of society – have crumbled. But I also see the answer in enterprises such as WyoFile.com. (But not only WyoFile.com, because they have a reporting staff of, well, three.)
Now is the time
WyoFile.com is part of a surge in digital news start ups that coincided with the Great Recession of 2008-’09. The loss of jobs in traditional newsrooms left talented, passionate people with time on their hands to shape the future. It also left critical gaps in news coverage.
An analysis by the Pew Research Center earlier this year found that 468 online news sites – 30 big ones, and 438 small ones, including WyoFile.com – have created 5,000 new editorial jobs. That doesn’t do much to take the sting out of the jobs lost, but it is a gathering of innovative energy toward filling an information gap that could be an even bigger disaster for our democracy than for our economy.
In 2008, Wyoming was following that trend. Lee Enterprise had purchased the Casper Star-Tribune and its sister papers in California and the Midwest in 2002. Restructuring with an eye to boosting the profit margin left seasoned news veterans out of work and the proud paper with a battered institutional memory.
WyoFile.com started in 2008 and gained its non-profit news status in 2009. There was news to be covered and there were seasoned people to lead the way.
This is the place
Wyoming is the kind of place where a dollar could lose its way. Half the land is owned by the federal government, and a tremendous amount of the mineral estate is leased by multinational corporations. A fair amount of money travels a long way to get to Wyoming and WyoFile.com takes seriously its role of watching where it ends up.
Rone Tempest, a founding editor of WyoFile.com who is now a contributor to the site, has spent years tracking the millions of federal and state dollars squandered on the Two Elk power plant and carbon sequestration test boondoggle. He is still working to gain release of records withheld by the Department of Energy, which says it is pursuing its own investigation.
Greg Nickerson covers both the university in Laramie and the Legislature in Cheyenne. The two institutions crossed paths last year in a series of personnel moves that rattled relationships and frayed trust between Wyoming’s cultural and political centers.
Sharing is the new competing
If a more informed populace is really what’s at stake in the digital news revolution, then it’s more important to get the news to its audience than it is to collect clicks on online stories. Part of WyoFile’s pledge to its supporters is to share what it creates.
That means stories by WyoFile staff are available to for-profit media across the state – such as the Casper Star-Tribune and the Cheyenne Tribune Eagle – as well as to non-profit news outfits such as Wyoming Public Radio.
The 2014 Pew Center Report found that more than half of the smaller organizations it studied called themselves primarily local or hyperlocal news outlets – those covering neighborhood news. Forty five of the sites called themselves investigative news sites. WyoFile.com manages to do both, working as part of the Investigative News Network, while also covering issues that stretch the full length of Wyoming’s one small town with a very long Main Street.
WyoFile.com has evolved in its six-year life span. Earlier this year, WyoFile hired Lorena Garcia, its first executive director. It was a big move to address a challenge that is common across nonprofit news sites: Running a business and raising money takes time, talent and energy and are skills many reporters and editors don’t have.
A separate Pew report found that finding time to focus on business activities as a “major” challenge by 62 percent of all nonprofit news sites, while 55 percent said the same about the process of applying for grants.
The arrival of Garcia, and the hiring of Angus Thuermer from the Jackson Hole News & Guide are the kind of leaps that make me excited about the future of journalism in general, and WyoFile.com in particular. It’s an investment not just in a project, but in a process: What the people of Wyoming know, they can talk about and act on. And that’s what journalism can do for democracy.
— Nadia White is an associate professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism where she teaches old-school journalism in the new media model. Her students, for instance, provided extensive coverage of the environmental crimes trial ever held, using Twitter and Blogspot and old-fashioned seat time. White was an editor and reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune for many years, working from both Casper and Washington D.C. She worked as press secretary to Kathy Karpan’s U.S. Senate bid in 1996. She is currently writing a book project that blends biography,memoir and adventure travel, all from a desk in Missoula, Mont.
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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