About a month or so before the November election, Mass Transit Now communications director Alex Fryer stopped by Drinking Liberally to help push the Prop. 1 cause, and we got to talking about the state of the campaign and the media coverage of it.
Fryer, a ten-year veteran reporter for the Seattle Times before jumping ship in 2007 to work for Mayor Nickels, complained about the difficulty he was having pushing the campaign’s message to the local media. He lamented the paucity of coverage of Prop. 1’s impact on Eastside communities, yet couldn’t find a single reporter who considered Eastside transportation issues to be their beat.
The Time’s spent years building up its Eastside bureau, Fryer recalled wistfully. And today… nada.
Talk to communications professionals around the region, many of whom are ex-journalists themselves, and you’ll find Fryer’s frustrating experience far from isolated. As our local media universe contracts, the opportunities for media relations contract with it, a particularly troubling trend for the political community, which has watched the size of our state political press corps shrink by as much as two-thirds over recent years.
Imagine you’re a Seattle area legislator or advocacy group attempting to garner a little hometown coverage for a particular bill that would benefit your constituency. It wasn’t so long ago that Seattle’s print media alone had a half-dozen or more reporters and opinion writers based in Olympia during the session, plus a slew of political journalists back at home. But today, if the Times’ Andrew Garber isn’t interested in your story, or he already has his dance card punched, you’re pretty much out of luck.
What’s the solution? Well, I suppose communications staffers could just work harder—be more diligent, more creative, and more relentless—and I know that our state’s various progressive organizations could do a better job coordinating their message. And, I suppose these organizations’ backers could sink more money into their communications efforts to help defray the added expense of going around the traditional media gatekeepers and straight to decision makers and the public at large.
Or, of course, the broader progressive community could come together to fund and support the creation of independent progressive media… you know… like the kinda work we’re doing here at HA, Publicola and the JOA News Co-op. An independent media that not only moves stories into the corporate press and helps to frame the coverage therein, but also, increasingly over time, reaches a larger and larger direct audience. A truly independent media, that’s honest about its bias and fearless in its opinions, and never shy about biting the hands that feed it, if that’s what events dictate.
That’s what folks like Josh and I are attempting to do here with the JOA, but we can’t do it alone and we can’t do it for free. A credible and sustainable independent media is going to have to pay real journalists to do real journalism, and until we can establish a large enough audience and revenue stream, it’s going to require a cash subsidy, pure and simple… a cash subsidy that should be coming from the backers of all those progressive organizations and candidates for whom our success would directly benefit.
Sure, that’s a pretty self-serving analysis, but if there’s a better idea out there of how to address this growing communications crisis, I’ve yet to hear it. And as for those progressive organization communications directors concerned about protecting their own budgets and salaries from hungry vultures like me, well, I’m the least of your worries, for no amount of media relations is going to help you get your message out if there isn’t any media left to relate to.
There’s a familiar cliche about the Chinese character for “crisis” meaning “danger” plus “opportunity,” and while it’s apparently not quite true, it’s still an apt metaphor for our current communications crisis, which does indeed present a great danger to the progressive community while also presenting an opportunity to reshape the local media landscape in our favor. But there’s another cliche that also comes to mind in describing our efforts thus far to muddle through in the face of our local media’s dramatic collapse: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
Over the coming weeks I not only intend to expand on my thoughts about what we need to be doing differently to confront and exploit our changing media landscape, I also intend to start demonstrating this vision by example. But while it has been tremendously gratifying to hear from folks about how much they appreciate my work, at some point, some of this appreciation needs to translate into substantial financial support for me to have any hope of success.