Living the news, publishing every week
by Don Nelson
In the remote mountain valley where I live in northern Washington, people are talking about two members of a local family who have been indicted by the federal government and charged with killing as many as five endangered gray wolves. A third member of the family is charged with conspiracy to smuggle a wolf pelt out of the country. I own a small weekly newspaper, the Methow Valley News, and our small staff has been all over this story: When protected animals end up dead, it becomes statewide news.
Stories like this often come out of sparsely populated areas like the one my paper covers -- where towns are small, expanses are big, the ideal of personal freedom is strong, and tolerance for outside interference is rock-bottom low. These are the outposts where many of the nation's most contentious environmental issues get played out, far from the big population centers and away from consistent media scrutiny.
Except by publications like the Methow Valley News. City media descend on our area only when news breaks that's of national importance. Most of the time we're it -- a thin line of defense against a journalism-free community. Hundreds of papers like mine persist in the West, most of them isolated and independent, and each serving only a few thousand readers. Overworked reporters scramble with scant resources to cover issues that may resonate well beyond local concerns.
I think of the Methow Valley as a microcosm for the major environmental issues of the West. That makes us, out of necessity, environmental journalists, though we never think of ourselves that way. We just cover the stories as they arise, as fairly as possible.
But sometimes, even reporting the news neutrally -- that is, accurately and with the necessary context -- is seen as slanted. After we'd begun writing about the killing of wolves in the Lookout Pack, one reader wrote and accused us of doing a "hatchet job," adding that our coverage was "one of the most malicious and sensational examples of journalism I have ever witnessed." Another reader said that our coverage was "fair and factual" and that the accused wolf-killers "deserved to be prosecuted for their vicious, self-serving and illegal actions."
Our job is to report stories fully, credibly and consistently. We're not heroes looking for a commendation, just serious reporters working our butts off. Forget about the shabby nobility of tending the sacred journalism flame. This is no Museum of Traditional Country Journalism with authentic re-enactors, nor is it a semi-retirement refuge for worn-out scribes seeking refuge in the rural West.
Like everyone else in the print news industry, we are somewhere on the evolutionary spectrum between movable type and extinction, working hard to keep this form of journalism going long enough for the next economic model to show up.
It may be surprising to hear that - compared to big-city newspapers - the rural press is said to be doing relatively well. But there are doubtless some news vacuums still out there, areas where coverage is so scant, infrequent or superficial that forces are operating essentially unobserved. Unobserved is unchecked, and dangerous.
Who else is going to do it? Bloggers, social media and so-called citizen journalism -- the pundits' solutions to nearly everything -- aren't consistently effective, even in much bigger places. Online news sites are working in some larger markets, but might find it tougher going in the sticks.
In a recent issue, we published yet another story about the wolf killings. We also ran a photo of a little girl buying pumpkins, an analysis of congressional redistricting in our county, the "Police Blotter" and a story about a couple celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary. Pretty routine stuff. We do this week in and week out because it's what our well-informed and engaged community expects. But we're not primitives.
We file breaking news updates on our website, have a Facebook page, a Twitter account and are working on an electronic edition. At the same time, we're still training many of our readers to even look at such things.
Maybe the industry intellectuals who have swept us into the journalism ashbin along with the big-city newspapers are right, and we will inevitably fail. But after more than 35 years in larger markets working for much bigger publications, I'd rather be here practicing meaningful journalism for a deserving audience than approximating some wan shadow of the craft for an online "community" site where tweeted rumors count as news.
Our readers hold us to a higher standard, and most days we're the best source they have. It's good to be needed; it's good to be faithfully read.
Don Nelson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a longtime newspaper and magazine editor who is currently the publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News in Twisp, Washington.© High Country News