Column: Microsoft backs new approach to save local news in Yakima | Opinion
An extraordinary effort to save local journalism in the Yakima Valley, supported by Microsoft and local supporters, is taking off this year.
The Yakima Free Press campaign aims to raise at least $1 million per year for several years to maintain and grow essential news coverage as the local news industry evolves. If successful, this will begin with the addition of four reporters to the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper, who will provide free online access to their stories.
A group of local leaders are working with the Herald-Republic and the Yakima Valley Community Foundation to raise funds. Donations go to the foundation, which will provide grants to support the local news ecosystem.
“Hopefully I think we can do it,” said Kristin Kershaw Snapp, a scion of a longtime Yakima farming family who until recently chaired the foundation board.
Snapp said the local newspaper is “an essential part of a community.”
“When you lose that, you lose all kinds of things,” she said. “Not only is the community worse off, but the country is worse off. I don’t think any of us want to see that.
For Microsoft, the Yakima campaign expands a company initiative to support journalism, which it sees as both a civic duty and a way to support the communities and democracies where its products are sold.
Microsoft Chairman Brad Smith wrote last year about the fundamental role of local media and said its precipitous decline “is a defining issue of our time that goes to the heart of our democratic freedoms.”
News is also part of the technology ecosystem, Smith wrote, “and all of us who participate in this ecosystem have both the opportunity and the responsibility to help journalism thrive. In short, technology companies need to do more.
The Yakima Project stands out among a flurry of recent philanthropic efforts to revive local news coverage, most of which focus on metropolitan areas. It aims to provide quality coverage in a largely rural and diverse region with above average poverty.
While the whole country is suffering from the journalism crisis, rural communities and the poorest are particularly affected. They especially need the local advocacy and increased civic engagement that local news provides, as well as responsible journalism to reduce corruption and hold officials accountable.
A prime example was recent Herald-Republic coverage of a Toppenish school principal whose son and daughter-in-law are being investigated for alleged inappropriate behavior with students, Casey Corr said. , a former Seattle Times reporter living in Yakima and involved in the local campaign.
“I don’t see this kind of reporting done in the Yakima Valley by any other existing entity,” Corr said.
“There are a lot of things that newspapers do that we take for granted, they cover everything from cooking recipes to comics to politics and sports… so I’ll complain as much as anyone when I’m unhappy with my daily journal, but I definitely would. I don’t want to live without it.
The Seattle Times bought the Yakima newspaper in 1991 and is looking for ways to sustain what has become a loss-making operation.
After the Yakima newspaper lost 30% of its advertising revenue during the pandemic, the Times last year put the Yakima newspaper building up for sale, moved printing to its Walla Walla Union-Bulletin plant and reduced the personnel outside the press room of approximately 50 positions.
Microsoft got involved in late 2020 when it launched a journalism initiative that has since provided grants and training to Yakima outlets; Fresno, California; Jackson, miss; Appleton, Wis.; and El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.
In Yakima, Microsoft initially donated $275,000, helping several outlets. This allowed the Herald-Republic to conduct important investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, the decline of health services, and the justice system of the Yakama Nation.
Today, the company is supporting two new pilot projects, hoping to develop sustainable, locally supported models that can be replicated in other places that have lost or are losing local connections.
In Fresno, the company supports the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, an effort led by the James B. McClatchy Foundation to support and expand reporting throughout the agricultural region.
Yakima’s project focuses on building reporting capacity, generating a critical mass of local support and expanding access to essential news and information. Microsoft is providing $250,000 to continue its previous support and help launch the Yakima campaign.
Once the four reporters are hired, the plan is to hire a parallel team of bilingual reporters to produce stories in Spanish and English. The Yakima Herald-Republic also publishes a Spanish edition called El Sol.
Editor-in-chief Greg Halling aims to hire all four people by the middle of the year, covering agriculture, health care, public safety, and social and economic issues. Two are placed by Report for America, a nonprofit service program that places emerging journalists in newsrooms. They will join a Yakima newsroom of 24 people, including six journalists.
For context, four reporters are comparable to or larger than the reporting teams of many “ghost” newspapers currently operating in much of the country. These are outlets that barely cover their communities after being gutted by the contraction and consolidation of the industry by extractive companies on Wall Street.
“It’s a very difficult business,” Corr said, “but the transmission of ideas, debates, information, even publicity, is vital to an informed society.”