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The importance of local news and organizations that gather it need to attract greater focus

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Having spent my first two decades in journalism working in the intensely competitive environment of a news service, it stirs concern as much as sadness to read that major newspaper chains are basically halting their use of the Associated Press (AP). What’s now the world’s largest news service seems likely to become smaller and less vital to the industry.
 
The role of a news service, with a global corps of reporters and editors, is to bring important information from the state, the nation and the world to readers of local publications or to listeners and viewers of local broadcast outlets. But that may soon become a journalistic yesterday.
 
In the days when there were two competing news services – the AP and the one I worked for, United Press International (UPI) -- the goal of “get it first but get it right” that permeated the competition ensured that no events that readers or listeners might need escaped those reporters. And they stood happily ready to call attention if the competitor erred on the “get it right” requirement, competition thus ensuring that error was guarded against.
 
Word that Gannett and McClatchy, two of the largest and most respected media organizations in the country, have decided to stop using AP and thus save the cost of the service, indicates an intent to diminish the amount of national and world news they’ll bring to their local readers.
 
Gannett, which publishes USA Today, may contend that the national newspaper will provide the necessary national and world coverage for its more than 100 daily newspapers and its broadcast entities. That remains to be demonstrated.
 
And the need for respected local and, for sure, national media has become more vital than ever with the emergence of entities, both national and local, for whom accuracy is intrusive on their goal of propagandizing for political or social causes.
 
The fact that propagandizing is accompanied by falsehood and fabrication helps make clear the need for respected media to remain financially healthy and viable. And that actually has begun to attract advocates.
 
A key advocate is Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, whose Local Journalism Sustainability Act was filed in 2021 with co-sponsors Sens.Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. The legislation, awaiting further action, aims to financially support local news organizations by providing tax credits to incentivize hiring more journalists, increasing circulation and attracting more advertising.
 
The new mantra for newspapers is “focus on local,” which is what newspapers have always done: run stories of interest to their local reader, even if the stories originated in Tokyo or Moscow or Washington, D.C., particularly if the stories from Washington focused on how Congress members debated and voted. Thus, stories were “local” if they related to the local readers’ members of Congress or Senate or debates that involved local issues.
 
Using dollars of any kind to enhance local coverage benefits the future of newspapers that make that investment.
 
And some investors are emerging to achieve that digitally. Thus I have begun receiving daily via email The Denver Gazette and the Salem Reporter, true local-news vehicles with news-gathering staffs and subscription charges promoted just like the New York dailies or the
Washington Post, or the Seattle Times.
 
In fact, Les Zaitz, the journalist who founded the Salem Reporter in 2018, was a former editor of The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper. His father, Clarence, was my friend and fellow UPI reporter and, subsequently, also an executive with the news service.
 
The decline of existing daily newspapers will likely leave similar opportunities for journalism entrepreneurs, including in places like Bellevue and the Eastside of King County, which the Seattle Times claims as its coverage and circulation area, a region once served by a quality daily newspaper for which the costs became unsustainable, then a quality weekly newspaper whose owners closed to save money.
 
Several Eastside communities, including Bothell Woodinville and Redmond, have local weekly newspapers. However, much of the area that will soon match Seattle's population remains without local media coverage, and that means opportunities for newspapers will eventually attract investors.
 
I was part of a team that sought to start an Eastside daily a few years ago. The effort by what we incorporated as Eastside Media generated a large amount of interest from key individuals and prominent business people across Eastside but eventually was shelved.
 
But it’s quite possible that if a federal program like Cantwell envisions existed when we were pursuing our Eastside Media effort, there might now be a newspaper, either print or digital, in existence on the Eastside.
 
And it's also likely that the level of Eastside local news being covered by The Times in such a competitive environment would be substantially greater.
 
As I indicated at the outset of this Harp,
competition drives coverage. And accuracy.
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