Aired: March 14, 2020

Hard News

This program is part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils. The initiative seeks to deepen the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the vital connections between democracy, the humanities, journalism, and an informed citizenry.

We thank The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their generous support of this initiative and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.


Two hands holding out a newspaper. Image source: PxHere Licensed by CC0 1.0 Public Domain.

  • Monetizing the Newspaper (16 min.)

    With: Betsy Edwards (Virginia Press Association)

    Think you don’t get your news from the paper anymore? Think again. Betsy Edwards says that every big thing that’s ever happened in this country was unearthed by a newspaper reporter. And still is. Now the key is figuring out how to monetize that.

  • Newspaper Networks (12 min.)

    With: Katrice Hardy (Greenville News/Indianapolis Star)

    Katrice Hardy busts the myth that corporate takeovers are bad for local papers. Working with Gannett, she’s seen small newsrooms gain resources they wouldn’t otherwise have. And she finds success in community involvement. 

  • Is Objectivity a Lost Cause? (13 min.)

    With: Lewis Raven Wallace

    In 2017, Lewis Raven Wallace was fired from his job as a reporter at American Public Media’s Marketplace. Ever since, he’s been questioning the role of objectivity in journalism.

  • Non-Profits to the Rescue! (11 min.)

    With: Chris Tyree (Virginia Center of Investigative Journalism)

    With newspapers shuttering, investigative journalism is endangered. Chris Tyree  says non-profit news organizations like his own are picking up the slack.


Download a pdf of the full transcript here.

Speaker key:

SM: Sarah McConnell, producer and host

AS: Audio Sample

BE: Betsy Edwards

KH: Katrice Hardy

LW: Lewis Raven Wallace

CT: Chris Tyree




BJ I was 17 when I immigrated from Haiti to Miami.

SM Billie Jolloui is a young, rising reporter. And while he might embody the traits of a typical journalist–smart, gritty, inquisitive–his path to becoming a reporter has been anything but typical.

BJ You know, growing up in Haiti, there were things that I’ve seen that I knew for sure were inappropriate for my age. And I remember just like one day going to school I saw there was a woman who was just like laying on the ground. She had been shot. And that was like so shocking that she was there, but it was hours later. So, at that point, being 11 years told, I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist at this point, but I knew for sure I wanted to be a storyteller.

SM Billie joined his first newspaper as a full-time reporter in Texas. It was 2015 and the industry was in crisis. Budget cuts and layoffs had decimated newsrooms all over the United States.

BJ For me, like the way that I used to cope with it–I would just show up to the newsroom and be the best journalist that I could be and then knowing that if I do my job, maybe that will spare me.

SM In spite of the pressure, Billie remains optimistic about the future of journalism. For him, the future lies in non-profit news organizations like Charlottesville Tomorrow, where he now serves as a reporter.

BJ The older generation used to consume news by reading hard copy newspapers. And then the younger generation wants to read the news on their cell phone or just like digital news. And so, the same way that there are journalists who have found a model that’s working, in terms of like the nonprofit news outlets, journalists will find a way to keep on being prosperous so that we’re finding ways to distribute the news to the people. [music]

SM From Virginia Humanities, this is With Good Reason. I’m Sarah McConnell. Today on the show, how newspapers are staying alive in the digital age, and why local journalism is vital for democracy. If you ask the average person where they get their news, the one place not at the top of their list: a newspaper. Betsy Edwards, executive director at the Virginia Press Association, says that’s not quite right.

BE People are out there reading and sharing newspaper news everyday and they don’t even realize it.

SM And she worries that decisions on Wall Street, growing mistrust of journalists, are adding to an already dire situation. Betsy, you joined the Virginia Press Association in 2016. It was a tumultuous time. You said, in fact, you’ve never seen so many bad things happening simultaneously in one industry.

BE That’s right.

SM Like what?

BE Well, you know, I think everybody thinks it’s all about Craig’s List of social media, but the truth is, it’s almost a perfect storm of many things that were happening. And I think we started to really realize 4-5-6-7 years ago, but the truth is, I think it’s been coming for about 20 or 30 years.

SM What happened in 2016?

BE Well in 2016, of course, we had a president elected who is not a supporter of the mass media. And he started discussing and talking about the media in new ways, and calling journalists enemies of the people, which of course I don’t think anyone’s ever done before. And so, I think that changed everybody’s perspective. People started thinking about, you know, journalists in a new way. And they also started thinking about, “Oh, what has been going on?” He also would make comments, like the failing New York Times, and I think a lot of attention was put on the economics of running a newspaper. So it sort of all started getting focused on and discussed in 2016, but it had been building for a really long time.

SM The Virginia Press Association has how many members of small and large papers?

BE It’s 175 newspapers–3 online only members, and then magazines. So, we represent pretty much everybody, from the smallest Rural Weekly, to the Washington Post.

SM So, when you first came in, did you see some papers fold? I mean, were there things actually happening to your membership?

BE Yes. Not so much the first year but in the 2nd year, about 75 papers folded. And that was a real wake-up call, I think, for everybody.

SM I’m sure the news that Warren Buffet did not want to own these newspaper empire anymore came as a blow.

BE I think it did. I think, I think, you know, there’s probably never been a greater investor than Mr. Buffet. But, Mr. Buffet said to the Wall Street Journal last year that newspapers were toast, and then he talked about newspapers in his annual stockholder meeting. I think that carries some weight for sure.


SM How many papers did Buffett have?

BE He had a 68 or 70 papers.

SM Are newspapers toast?

BE I certainly don’t believe they’re toast, no. I don’t believe they’re toast at all. Are they going to change? Are they going to become part print, part digital? Are some going to become nonprofits? Are some going to work in collaborative fashion where they get news in the same ways from across the state or across the country? We’re going to see all kinds of models of newspapers, because we’re going to need to. But what I hope everybody recognizes is the value of the newspaper has always been its newsroom. Nobody has the newsrooms like newspapers. Nobody.

SM So you don’t need a physical paper but you need the newsroom that you’ve invested in.

BE You do. You need to invest in the newsroom and those reporters and allow them to cover the community or region that they’re support to cover in the way that newsrooms always have, because people need that investigative journalism, they need that in-depth news, they need the boring stuff, they need the exciting stuff, they need the food, they need the sports, they need to business page. They need all of that, because all of that is important to their lives. And newspapers have always had this partnership with the community, and as people who started sharing what they called news, but I would not call news, on Facebook, or Twitter, that’s not vetted news. Vetted news is, a newspaper reporter goes out, gets the story, his or her editor says, who are your sources? You don’t have anonymous sources. You need another source. You need to back this up. You need to have credibility. The source needs to be well written, vetted news. Not gossip. Not headlines.

SM Can’t you do that–can’t you crowdsource all the news you need? Now you have smart people posting fact, to their websites with larger and larger followings, and people sort of talking about it til you get a clearer picture.

BE No. It’s gossip. Talk about unvetted. Talk about ‘could have it all wrong’–that’s an example of how you could have it all wrong. That underlying structure that newspapers have across this country is vastly important to not only what you know in your community. How are you going to vote for your board of supervisors or your city council or your mayor when you know nothing about the candidates. So, people might think they’re informed. They might think, “oh my neighbor told me about this guy, and doesn’t really like him, or I saw his ads on TV.” But what do they really know about that candidate?

SM But can’t they get that kind of information on television? Can’t they get it from local and cable TV news?

BE No. I would contend that, if every newspaper in America disappeared tomorrow, you would have a tough time–NPR would have a tough time, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, FOX, CNN, because they heavily rely on that news being generated by newspapers. I will go out and I’ll meet with a legislator, and they’ll say, “well, I don’t read the newspaper anymore.” And I’ll say, “really? Where do you get your news from?” And they start naming these online news sources, and these online news sources have curated, have gathered newspaper content. And they’re reading news that was generated by a newspaper. And they think they’re not, because they’re not physically picking up a newspaper. So, I–people are out there reading and sharing newspaper news everyday, and they don’t even realize it.

SM Were not people less hungry for news were more hungry for [inaudible]–

BE They’re more hungry than they’ve ever been. People talk about the news–I mean, I’m not young. I’m in my 60s. And, when I got out of journalism school, we read the paper everyday, of course. But people weren’t talking about the news and politics, and what’s going on in their communities, and national issues in the ways that they are today. And that’s partly due to social media and the fact that they sort of have a way to share their thoughts with each other. And I’m all for people sharing their thoughts. I’m not for people thinking they’ve generated the news. That’s the difference.

SM What does it matter that these reporters generating most of the news are coming from newsrooms, newspapers? Couldn’t we have those reporters reporting from different platforms–not from newspapers or even online newspapers but journalists elsewhere?

BE Well, the thing about newsrooms is they have to be funded. They used to be funded through advertising. So that was the revenue model of a newspaper. They got the vast majority of their revenue from their advertisers, and a small portion from their readers–subscriber readers. The problem is, this news that’s created now through newspaper reporters in newspaper newsrooms is going out for free to people through various online platforms. So, in other words, that legislator who I may have talked to might be reading the news that was dug up, written, created by a newspaper reporter but he’s not paying for it. And an advertiser’s not paying for it. Nobody’s paying for it. So that’s the problem. It’s finding a way for people to pay to fund, to support those newsrooms. They still want the news, but they think, “Oh, I’m getting it on this social media outlet.” And it doesn’t matter. Well, it does matter. Because there wouldn’t be anything to share online if all the newspapers disappeared. You and Mary wouldn’t have anything to talk about. So, virtually every scandal, every big thing that’s ever happened in this country was unearthed or discovered by a newspaper. You know, we wouldn’t have Watergate but for the Washington Post. We wouldn’t have had the scandal with gymnasts and Larry Nasser and Indianapolis without the Indianapolis Star. We wouldn’t–Jeffrey Epstein would not have returned to prison was it not for the Miami Herald. These are the kinds of things that people think are important to know about, important to discover. And newspapers are the media outlets that are going to discover them. You don’t want those watchdogs to go away. Recently, there was a study done by a professor out of Notre Dame in Southbend. And it was a study done on what happens in a small town–or any community that loses its newspaper. Well, it’s interesting. Because what happens is their bond rating goes down. And people would go, “okay, well so what? What does that mean?” What it means is the cost for that community to borrow money, to build the school, to build the courthouse, to pave roads, whatever they have to do to borrow money or float a bond is what they call it, the interest on that has gone up. And the reason it’s gone up is because Wall Street believes that, with no newspaper in the town, there are no watchdogs in the town. And if there are no watchdogs in the town, government is not going to be run as well. Things can happen–it’ll not be exposed. There’s no sort of checks and balances here. And that’s why the newspaper were always called the 4th estate. That’s what they were providing is just a basic understanding of the role of newspapers. And I think it’s because people have always taken them for granted. They’ve always been there. No one can remember a time when there wasn’t a newspaper.


SM Well, it’s either gonna be privately funded or publicly funded. So, either newspapers have to figure out how to keep going, how to monetize their great product, or we need these privately funded organizations, that come through grant funding or rich donors, who are creating alternative kinds of media, like Centers for Investigative Journalism, or–

BE Right, right. And I think you’re going to see a lot more collaboration in the future with ProPublica, with Centers for Investigative Journalism, with nonprofits like the Night Foundation and others that come in, the Neiman at Harvard and other groups. But you can’t replace 10,000 newspapers with grants. It’s not doable. Many a town wouldn’t keep their newspaper. So, newspapers have to find a way to monetize, if you will, their product. And their product is local news. And they have to convince their readers that they have to stick with them, even if they go to a digital format some day, or a part print, part digital format, they need to keep their readers. 30 years ago, I had ABC, CBS, and NBC on my television. Maybe the local independent station. And I paid nothing for that, and I had to watch commercials. I don’t even know what my husband pays a month. It’s over a hundred dollars for us to get television. And, you know, we got a ridiculous number of channels. We also watch commercials on most of them, like we did when it was free. And you would never–if someone had come up to me and said, “oh, in 30 years, Betsy, you and your husband will be paying 100 dollars per month to watch TV,” I would’ve said, “you are insane. You are crazy.” But what happened was, they started adding this and they added this and they added this, and you’re like, “yeah, I wouldn’t mind seeing ESPN and I wouldn’t mind watching HBO and I wouldn’t mind Showtime, and I wouldn’t mind HDTV.” And pretty soon, you know, I’m paying for this package and this package, and they’re adding more and I’m paying more and they’re adding more and I’m paying more, and now look at what we’re paying for television, where, 30 years ago, it was free. So, I think there’s some lessons to be learned there for newspapers. That is, you’ve got to continue to expand and improve upon what you offer people, and I think people will pay for it if you do that.

SM Advice to publishers right now?

BE My advice is, try new things, find new ways to engage your readers. Look at technology as your friend, and digital media as your friend, and marry it as best you can to your print product. I don’t think we want to live in a country where most real newspapers are gone. I think because they’ve always been there and they have been institutions in our communities, people have taken them for granted. I understand that. But we’ve got–we’ve had a makeup call now. And people need to rally around their community newspaper, and they need to support it by subscribing, and they need to support it by advertising in it, so that we continue to have this incredible infrastructure that keeps us a democracy.

SM Betsy Edwards, thank you for talking with me on With Good Reason.

BE My pleasure, I appreciate it. [music]


SM Betsy Edwards is the executive director of the Virginia Press Association. With so many local papers bought up by conglomerates that slash the staff and merge newsrooms, reporters are struggling with diminishing resources. But Katrice Hardy is looking on the bright side. She used to work for the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk Virginia, but now that she’s working under the Gannett umbrella, she says she has access to a wide network of newspapers. And that’s really a good thing. Katrice has just been named executive editor of the Indianapolis Star. But when I spoke with her for this interview, she was still working in Greenville, South Carolina. Katrice, you’re executive editor of the Greenville News in Greenville, South Carolina, with a circulation of about 50,000, is that right?

KH Correct, yes.

SM And also, southern regional editor for the USA Today network. How do you wear both hats?

KH [laughs] That’s a really interesting question. So, I think the way you wear both hats is honestly to just have really good staff in a lot of different places. But my biggest focus for–you know, it’s kind of two different tasks. As a regional editor, I’m looking across the region at how we can cover our community strategically, and how we grow our audience and our business strategy. As a local top news editor, I’m working with a group of talented editors who are really focused on doing the kinds of work in Greenville that you’ll see out of a Washington Post or a Charleston Post & Courier. We think big city paper even though obviously we’re much smaller. So we’re really looking at the top issues that are impacting this community.

SM What was it like going from a locally owned, family owned, award winning newspaper, the Virginian Pilot in the Tidewater area of Virginia, to working for a Gannet paper which owns 100+ newspapers around the country?

KH So, I think, you know, one thing to keep in mind is that, while I had worked for all of my career before I left, and joined Gannet for a locally owned paper, it was a locally owned paper whose owners had put them up for sale 10 years before. There was not a lot of investment into the future.

SM And there were layoffs just within the last week or so.

KH Yes

SM Eventually, that size staff that you experienced has become much smaller.

KH Yes, it is about a third smaller than when I was there. But I’ll tell you I’ve still been impressed. I mean I have some friends there, with the work that they’re doing, the investigative work, there are some really talented people there who care so passionately. You know, moving to Greenville, South Carolina, joining Gannet, and the reason, I should mention this: what really convinced me that it was time to make a move, because I was not looking to leave the pilot despite, you know, the headwinds…I had had a great career there. I had worked my way up from an intern to the managing editor. I felt really good about my future there, was this idea that Gannet was creating at the time what was a network of papers. They were investing heavily in investigative journalists and creating an investigative team. And that really appealed to me. And then having the resources as a regional editor, and then at the time I was the regional editor of the southeast–and we could take our pool of resources and do what we needed to help each other locally in our own communities but also as a region. And that was really appealing to me. And I love this idea of creating what you would consider our own AP in some ways. So we could rely on each other, but also so that we could use some of these investigative resources on a local level. So I could, for instance, tap an investigative editor, if I didn’t have one locally to help me with a big project. Or I could tap a great graphic artists to help me with bells and whistles digitally that I didn’t have locally. That was really appealing to me. We had one of our courts reporters–she has uncovered that there was a guy in town who lost a bunch of money because he was stopped by police but wasn’t charged with anything. And it raised some questions for her. And that became a story about civil asset forfeiture. And, of course, snoozefest when you say the name, but basically it means that South Carolina has laws where police can stop you for anything and seize your assets under the idea that maybe you did something wrong, and never charge you with even a traffic ticket, take your possessions, and you have to get a lawyer to fight to get your possessions back, even though you did nothing wrong. And the more we looked at this, we determined, “wow, this is not just impacting this segment of the community. It’s everybody.”

SM Was that money going to fund police departments?

KH It was definitely going to fund police departments. And so they were getting, you know, access to nice Jeeps, for instance, and also lots of cash to help support some of their services. And there were no checks and balances on it. So we started off looking at that in Greenville and thought, “we need to look at this statewide.” And so for a newsroom our size, that was a big commitment, but we did it. We also decided to do it over three years so we could really be comfortable with the trends we were seeing and we could know without any doubt that this is how it’s playing out across our counties, across the state. So, that was a big project that we did. And so when you back to resources, sure the staff was smaller when I got to Greenville. They felt like they had been decimated, right? I got that. They talked to me about the numbers they had. But what we needed to do was to really sit back and say, “we cannot be all things to all people.” And so I really took to heart the message of, what are the most pressing issues that we need to cover for our community that’s going to make a difference? And that meant making some tough decisions about what we weren’t going to cover.

SM Like what?

KH You know, we’d wrestled on and off with a full-time religion reporter. We decided that, while we needed to cover faith, it wasn’t going to be our main beat until the person who covers faith covers it part-time. For a long time, the Greenville news had had a team of Clemson football reporters, and rightfully so. We really hadn’t looked at the Clemson University news beat as a beat that we needed to do, and hey, they were one of the top 25 colleges in the nation at that point. And so, we thought, you know? This is an opportunity to actually have a Clemson news reporter and university reporter, and that beat has paid off dividends for us. So we needed to make smarter choices about our resources. Everyday we have debates about, well, should we cover this, should we not cover this? There are things that we still cover, frankly, that I’m not sure sometimes if, you know, a significant number of people will read it. But we do it because we are shedding light on issues that our community needs to hear about. I would love to have 10-15-20 more people in this newsroom, but what I’ve come to realize…it’s like your home budget. It’s that once you use those resources effectively, and to really impact your community, you can still do phenomenal work. But you have to make tough choices.

SM What about the growing mistrust of journalists and the allegations of so-called fake news? Are you and your team feeling that? Is it hurting your work and your revenue?

KH I think that as an industry it definitely and I think locally, you know, I think a lot of people want to understand, well, how do you know that? How did you go about that? I mean, there a lot of–are you biased towards this? Oh I know you must feel this way. So one of the things I think this industry has wrestled with is opinion context, because there has been a lot of misunderstanding in our communities about who does opinion and who doesn’t. And, is that the newsroom or is it not? I think it’s critically important that we spend our time really helping our community understand why what we do as paid journalists is different from a blogger for instance. I think we as an industry have not done a good job of explaining to our community how we got the story–that we did take this to court legally, that we did foya this. I mean, we spend thousands of dollars on that. I mean, once people understand what we’re doing as paid journalists and how it is much more complex than what I think folks understand, then I think what we do will stand out.

SM You know, it’s funny. We can all remember when the internet was rising, and newspapers were saying, “oh my gosh, what’s happening to our ad revenue?” How are we going to monetize our papers in the future? Everything we’ve understood is going out the window, and I’m not sure we ever figured out what the answer was…newspapers simply folded or laid off or got gobbled up. Will we end up with just a few reporters at huge regional levels?

KH It’s a really good question. I hope not, because I think local journalism is so important. And so, I can tell you, one of the things I’ve been impressed with in Gannet is all the different ways they’ve been going about trying to figure this out. You know, we started a series that we heard about from our Montgomery sister paper, called Community Heroes. We take recommendations and nominations from the community and we vote every month on the winner of that. But what we did is we sold that as a sponsorship, and so that was a way of making money off of a really worthwhile project. So we’re looking for ways to diversify what we’re offering. And it’s also important I think that we do still have newspapers and print journalism. Right? We need that. Those are still bringing in significant dollars. But it’s not our future, obviously.

SM Gannet has just been purchased. And what will that company now hold? If Gannet had a 100 news papers, what does the new owner now have?

KH So now we have over a 250+ dailys, and that CEO is the CEO of the merch company. The head of the news division for the new company–it was the same, was the head of the news division for Gannet. So, for the news side, I will tell you, we feel really good about the merger. Here’s the thing–we’ve got more news organizations that we can work with on our local and regional level. That’s always a good thing. I’m really excited about the projects we can do.

SM When people wring their hands over the state of the news industry now, are you one of those, or do you think we’re seeing and reading more news than ever?

KH Oh, I absolutely think we’re consuming more news. And, whether you like it or not, from platforms like social media, because sometimes it’s really hard–a lot of times, it’s really hard for our readers to distinguish–um, I would say legitimate journalism, from other kinds of journalism, or opinion content, or even understanding where it came from. But everybody’s sharing this content, and they’re commenting on the content. And sometimes obviously on social the commenting gets completely out of hand, but my point is we’re discussing it. They’re seeing what we’re doing, and we have more ways to reach an audience than we ever had before. I also think that there are a number of nonprofits and iother for-profit businesses that have come to our rescue and said, “we want to support your journalism.” So we also have, in many ways, while it’s a scary time, we’ve got a lot of opportunity to partner and do better work if we use those resources better and if we think of it as, you know, we’re all in this trying to do the right thing, so let’s figure out ways to do it together if we can’t do it alone.

SM Katrice Hardy is executive director of the Indianapolis Star. Former executive editor the Greenville News in Greenville, and the midwest regional editor for Gannet.

Welcome back to With Good Reason from Virginia Humanities. Objectivity has long been the gold standard of professional journalism. But one journalism is pushing back. In his new book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, Lewis Raven Wallace argues that objectivity is a false ideal that silences the voice of the oppressed. And, for Lewis, it’s an issue that hits very close to home. Lewis, in 2017, you were fired from your job at American Public Media’s marketplace for a blogpost you wrote about the role of objectivity in journalism. Do you have that blogpost handy? Would you read from part of it?

LW Oh, sure. It’s called Objectivity is Dead, and I’m Okay With It.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been losing sleep over the news of the last week. As a working journalist, I’ve been deeply questioning not only what our role is in this moment, but how we must change what we are doing to adapt to a government that believes in alternative facts and thrives on lies, including the lie of white racial superiority. I also have the great privilege of working for a public media organization, one whose mission is to serve our listeners as opposed to corporations, or the cult of clicks and shares. One of the diciest issues as we reconsider our role as journalists in this moment is that of objectivity. Some argue that if we abandon our stance of journalist neutrality, we let the post-fact camp win. I argue that our minds, and our listeners’ and readers’ minds are stronger than that. Strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective and still tell the truth. And I have a sense that this distinction is important in this moment because we’re going to have to fight for and defend what it means to serve the public as journalists. A few thoughts on objectivity… number 1, neutrality isn’t real. Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you too. As a member of a marginalized community, I’m transgender, I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I’ve been neutral. After years of silence, denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities, and expect not to be harassed, fired, or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity.


SM What did your bosses most object here?

LW Marketplace felt that the blogpost was in violation of their code of ethics for their journalists in that it made public my political persuasion or political perspective.

SM It basically said, hey, we need to fight against the Trump administration.

LW Yeah. They feared that it would be viewed as partisan.

SM And it would be viewed as partisan, right?

LW Yeah, I think that’s probably right, yeah.

SM When did firing happen, or did you just think it was untenable and leave at that point?

LW So, I initially, I took the blogpost down, so that I could think about it. Because I was so stunned and upset by by taken off the air. You know, this is my personal blog, it wasn’t something that I wrote for work. And I had been encouraged to have an identity online and on social media. So I was really surprised at being taken off the air for that and the sort of punitive way that it was handled. ANd initially I took the blogpost down and after, maybe a day or two of very deep personal reflection and consideration with the knowledge that I was going against what I had been asked to do by my employer, I put the blogpost back up and sent a long communication to the bosses at Marketplace about why and then, following that, they scheduled a meeting with me a few days later at which I was fired.

SM It’s amazing to hear you say it now because, as you’re reciting, the naivete and honesty that you had in this blogpost and then tried to figure out everything from, you know, what is my voice? What should my voice be? What should the voice of journalists be? And what are the limits and obligations of journalistic activism, right? All this triggered by something that felt so big, which was the ushering in of the Trump era.

LW Right, and I think, for me, there had been kind of an undercurrent the entire time that I’d been a journalist, a kind of fundamental conflict between my beliefs about activism and community and solidarity and my practices around journalism and objectivity that were required by working in public media specifically. But seeing the way that journalists in the mainstream media responded to Trump by, you know, not calling racism racism and not calling a lie a lie, really distubred me and sort of energized me around, okay, if I’m going to remain in journalism, the journalism that I want to remain in is what that is willing to tell the truth even if it means that we are perceived as partisan or is imbalanced and we actually really need that kind of journalism and there’s this long history behind that kind of journalism kind of driving efforts at justice in the United States.

SM The book you wrote, that has just come out, called The View From Somewhere, which is also the name of your podcast, produced with Ramona Martinez, there, you lay out the history of this notion of objectivity as the standard in journalism. When did the notion of objectivity first arise, and how’s it changed over time?

LW So, the notion of some kind of neutral non-partisan journalism began to emerge in the 1830s and 40s with the rise of the penny press, and it was tied very directly to a change in the business model for journalism. So, previously, most papers that reported news were funded either directly by a political party–so they were directly partisan–or they were funded by a particular industry so there were papers of commerce and trade. And the invention of the penny paper and this idea that you would sell a paper for cheap to lots and lots of people, not just members of one political party, and make money off of advertising, incentivized the appearance of non-partisanship for the paper, because you wanted all the advertisers to want to advertise for you and you wanted as many people as possible to buy the paper. And this sort of move toward the center and being less politically controversial started to emerge at that time. And then later on, it sort of met up with a number of other shifts around the actual notion of objectivity in the sense of objectively observable facts becoming a more significant part of the practice of journalism and the professionalization of journalism. And that didn’t really crystalize until really the 1920s and 1930s when you started to see that idea in journalism ethics codes nad being taught in journalism schools. And pretty much immediately, that notion of a quote-on-quote objective journalist became a tool for gatekeeping and for firing and for persecuting journalists who were labor organizers or journalists who stood up to racism and so on.

SM You write that objectivity itself was used often by people in power to oppress others. Help me understand how so.

LW So I looked for the first instance that I could find of a journalist being fired for supposedly not being objective. And I think this is an important distinction, because, of course there are all these practices that I think are good that lead to factual reporting. And that’s what some people mean when they say objectivity. But the way it’s been used more often is to refer to this idea that it’s possible to stand outside of or apart from or be impartial or be objective on a story. And so that concept of an objective journalist was brand new when the first unions of journalists were being organized, the newspaper guild. And a journalist named Morris Watson who was organizing with the newspaper guild at the Associated Press was the first person I could find to be fired, supposedly, for not being objective. Of course, what he was actually fired for was being a labor organizer. And his bosses said, oh, we have a great idea. We can fire him because he’s now in violation of our policy about objectivity by doing this labor organizing work. And that’s still a reality in newsrooms, that people are afraid to stand up to racism or transphobia or afraid to do political organizing around their status as workers because of the professional standard of objectivity and the way that its’ enforced and the way that examples are made of people like me and other people who go against status quo thinking in newsrooms, and are in fact fired and can be legally for supposedly not being objective or not appearing objective.


SM Wouldn’t the evil converse of what you’re suggesting about activist journalists be activist journalists who believe in causes so diametrically opposed to yours and all you believe in, activist journalists who espouse evil? Right?

LW Oh yeah. And we have activist journalists who espouse evil. Quite a lively movement of those in the United States. And I think that my sort of response to that is that objectivity is this kind of moving horizon that is not the right response to that kind of journalism, and that actually claiming our values and being transparent about what we do and who we are and why we say what we say is a better response to the kind of negative and damaging propaganda and disinformation that we’re dealing with right now than this kind of call to a return to objectivity. The problem isn’t that people all have a subjective perspective, because we do. The problem is a disregard for fact and disregard for sourcing and disregard for an honest conversation. And that disregard, I think, is something that, it actually requires activism to fight back against it.

SM You know, the conclusion of your book, The View From Somewhere, is called the End of Journalism. Really? Do you [pause]–

LW So my kind of mental adventure around this idea of the end of journalism is a fantasy about the end of the professionalization and the corporate ownership of journalism. So, our whole model for journalism right now is one of consumption and stories or information or products. And I think it would be hard to overestimate just how damaging it is that we see stories and that we see the information that we need to live and survive and thrive in that way as a product, something to be bought and sold. And that’s kind of the root, I think, of a lot of these problems is the, you know, the objectification as it were of the story itself and of the people in the story that it’s an object that’s like traded, an object of commerce. And that’s a capitalism thing, it’s been that way for a long time. But my proposal that there’s an end to journalism doesn’t mean that there’s an end to information and to storytelling and even to sort of specialization around, that there might be people who are journalists, who are particularly good at gathering and coalescing information or putting together words and telling stories, and that’s something that we do need to still value. But right now, our whole kind of system of how we place value is tied up with capitalism in some really dangerous ways that, in the era of climate change and the anthropocene, I don’t think we actually have a ton of time to fix that sort of spiritual problem that we have with our relationship to stories. [music].


SM Lewis Raven Wallace is an author and host of the podcast, A View From Somewhere. Coming up next, the future of investigative journalism may depend on nonprofit news organizations. Since the early 2000s in Virginia alone, about 30 newspapers have gone out of business, leaving many rural towns news deserts. But Chris Tyree is working to stem the tide. He’s executive director of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit news organizations that provides free reporting to newspapers around the state. Chris, you and former colleague of the Virginian Pilot newspapers in Norfolk have just created the Virginia Center of Investigative Journalism. What drove you to want to create it?

CT [laughs] That’s a deep question, and it goes back a long way. It started with the profound need, first of all. I have been in journalism since I was in high school. But looking around and looking at the trajectory of the print publishing industry in particular as really–ah this scared me. I was fortunate recently to work with a nonprofit news organization based out of DC, it was a global news organization. And some of my reporting happened to occur in countries where democracy is sort of on the line. We’re not that far off, we’re one second from midnight here. And we really need to be thinking about, “what is the role of the press in strengthening and maintaining democracy?” That goes way back to one night when I was sitting in a Waffle House with friends from college, talking about the history of journalism in America. I was studying at James Madison University, studying the history of journalism and, at the time, honestly, I really didn’t know much about it. I really didn’t know why it was so important. And the more I read, though, the more work I did in that class, I realized that, it is the protection of the 4th estate that keeps our democracy functioning. Our three branches of government for sure were develop a check and balance on each other to maintain that democracy. However, and Jefferson saw this very clearly, which is why he contacted Madison immediately and said, “we need an amendment, we need a 1st amendment. We need to protect the press, because it’s the press’ role and responsibility and job to inform our representative republic.”Because, if they’re not start and they’re not educated, then they cannot vote and be a part of this democracy.” And, so, I think right there, it hit me that I need to take what I do seriously as a journalism–that, my job is to be fair and unbiased and give the reader or the viewer the information so they can make informed decisions. To protect our freedoms.

SM Do you remember a time in your own career, let’s say when you were at the Virginian Pilot, when you realized the bottom was falling out of the industry?

CT Yeah. There were two times actually. The first when I found out that the Virginia Pilot was going to be sold, I was actually covering the Virginia Tech football game. I think it was the Orange Bowl. And they’re like, “What? I can’t believe our newspaper is being sold.” But I think where it really hit me–I had seen these stories that I had been interested in doing, these kind of really strong social documentary projects, shrink over time. And I went into an editor’s office and I pitched a story looking at children of incarcerated parents. And I had done a lot of legwork. Put a lot of data together to talk about recidivism rates, talk about what happens to children, what the economic impact is on the state, and the editor looked at me and was like, “Who’s really going to be interested in that story?” You know, I think it dawned on me then–this news industry’s changing and these are important story that impact a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. And if we can’t get that kind of information out to people, then I’m a little bit worried about where we’re headed. I mean, just this morning, [inaudible] who owns a number of newspapers, I think it’s over 30 national newspapers, announced they were going to be filing chapter 11, and they’re just one in a long string of them, unfortunately. Already this year, we have Warren Buffet selling off to Lee Enterprises. In the print world, it’s tumultuous. I mean, when I started at the Virginia Pilot in around 2000, we had around 360 people in the newsroom. And that was just our newsroom. We were competing with the newspaper, The Daily Press, which was across the river. And they probably had over 200 or more in their newsroom. And today, in that whole region, combining those two newspapers, there’s like 60 journalists. Little over 60 journalists, covering a very important region. And, nationally, more than 40% of the workforce is gone in just the last decade.

SM It’s stunning to hear you talk about the job loss of full-time reporters in just that area. What is lost when you go from nearly 600 to 60? What is the impact on civic education?

CT The impact is tremendous. We won’t fully realize that impact yet, but we can look at other countries and see how countries that have crushed their press have taken toward liberalism. There have been many studies done that have shown that, in communities that the press has gone away, things like property taxes go up, accountability goes away. If we can’t protect and have that kind of accountability, then what happens to our forms of government? What happens when the powerful and the rich take over? You know, there are areas of our state that have never had reporting in their communities.


SM You call those news deserts?

CT Right, but the news deserts are growing even in our urban areas, like Richmond, Hampton Roads. Just last week the Virginia Pilot introduced a new round of layoffs and buyouts. The number that left, I mean, that was 350 years of journalism experience in one axe, gone.

SM So tell me what you’re doing with the Center for Investigative Journalism. You are the executive director. You hope to leverage your talent and that of others to do more in-depth stories that newspapers themselves can’t get to?

CT Right. Traditionally, doing investigative reporting takes a lot of resources. It takes a lot of time. And these aren’t things that the local newspapers can really afford to do as much anymore. And so there’s a niche. There’s a need for that kind of storytelling. That kind of accountability journalism. And we saw an opportunity to help support local media, whether that’s print or broadcast, by giving our reporting to them for free.

SM Have you had any stories so far?

CT We have. We’ve published a few stories and we’re currently working on a few others. The first big story we worked on was looking at pfas, a type of toxic chemical the military had been using for aviation firefighting for close to 60 years. So what we uncovered was that the navy had been secretly putting this into the rivers around Hampton Roads. We found one of the wells at Langley Air Force Base. Registered one of the highest readings for this chemical in the entire country.

SM Were there any toxic effects on the water supply or for people who live downstream from this well?

CT Yeah. Pfas can live in the environment forever. It doesn’t break down naturally, and it is toxic. And so when it gets into the water, it kind of stays there until it gets into your body. And around Hampton Roads, those chemicals probably landed up in fish and shellfish and into our diets.

SM What will be your funding model if you cannot advertise or get money through advertising or classified ads while doing this important investigative journalism. What do you need?

CT Well, part of our need is how do we rethink the business, right? And so we realize we don’t have to publish. We have publishers already out there. We have broadcasters already out there. So that takes away a tremendous amount of overhead costs that we don’t have to worry about. If we provide strong journalism, they will pick it up. Our funding comes from average people: our readers, our viewers, people who believe in this kind of work. They will of course look for funding from publishing families who built their histories on journalism, but primarily our funding comes from people who believe in our work. The kind of reporting that we’re doing is fundamental. It needs to be done in order to support our understanding of how our governments work. It needs to protect us from when people try to take advantage of us. You know? I saw it happen in the small town I grew up in. We didn’t have reporting in that town. We didn’t have the kind of check and balance and so we saw people take advantage, whether that was through illegal dumping or though land grabs. So, investigative and explanatory journalism is the bedrock of journalism. I think we need to do a better job as journalists in finding a way to get those stories to people, and we have to find a way to be transparent in that so that people trust that what they’re reading from us makes sense and is fair, is balanced, and is accurate. [music]

SM I deeply admire the work that you’re doing and understand it’s important. Chris Tyree, thank you for sharing your insight on With Good Reason.

CT Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

SM Chris Tyree is executive director of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. This program is a part of the Democracy and Informed Citizen Initiative from the Federation of State Humanities Councils, seeking to deepen our knowledge and appreciation of the vital connections between democracy, the humanities, journalism, and an informed citizenry. With Good REason, in partnership with the Virginia Festival of the Book, thank the Andrew W. Mellon foundation for their generous support, and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership. Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWoods and by the University of Virginia Health System, With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Matt Darroch, Allison Byrne, and Jamal Millner. Some of the music is by Blue Dot Sessions. For the podcast, go to I’m Sarah McConnell. Thanks for listening. [music]


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