The Big Story

Real News: WWU alumni journalists who are surviving in the media industry aren’t giving up their watchdog roles—and are finding new career hope in unexpected places.
Zach Kyle

Preparing journalism's next generation: More and more Western students want a hand at shaping the future of journalism. 

Fake News 101: Some questions to consider before we click "share."

David Cuillier
Annika Wolters

Earlier this year, I walked away from a job as a reporter at Idaho’s biggest newspaper.

Subscription and advertising dollars in print and broadcasting have been in free-fall for more than a decade, as readers and advertisers take their attention and their ad business to the internet. Newsrooms across the country, including my former workplace, are feeling threadbare after rounds of layoffs, buyouts and vacated positions left unfilled.

As newsrooms shrink, the good days come less frequently. And by “good days,” I’m talking about time we spent producing stories that keep a watchful eye on our local powers that be. Reporters spend less time in statehouses and city halls now. That’s a problem: Politicians don’t work well on the honor system. And those who spread fake news for the purpose of deception don’t seem to mind the dwindling numbers of legitimate reporters either.

Meanwhile, the papers delivered to doorsteps shrink. Reporters try to fit important topics into their schedules while meeting rising expectations for more—but not necessarily more indepth— stories, online posts, videos, tweets and story clicks, and all with fewer editors supporting them.

I once had an editor who pointed out the obvious: We aren’t going to do more with less. That math doesn’t work. We will do less with less.

Most media outlets have done less with less for a long time. I read too many earnings reports showing corporate losses in the tens or hundreds of millions. It wore on me, so I left. The following week, the paper announced more layoffs and beat reshuffling. It’s grim, and I’m not the only journalist with concerns about corporate media’s ability to remain a reliable fourth estate, especially at the local level.

But despair isn’t the answer. Journalism is still filled with thousands of talented, dedicated journalists, including Western alumni, who are busy producing quality work or teaching the next generation of investigative journalists. They know the challenges their industry faces, yet they are optimistic.

Duff Wilson, ’75, B.A., journalism, built a career in investigative reporting at Seattle newspapers before working at the New York Times. He now works for Reuters, where his sole job is chasing the kind of deep, investigative stories many newspaper reporters aren’t given time for—a “journalism oasis,” he says.

There aren’t many well-staffed investigative teams like the one featured in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” anymore, Wilson says. But nonprofits like ProPublica, which has won four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Center for Investigative Reporting are helping fill the void.

“Nonprofits don’t make up the difference for other losses, but they are a really good breeding ground for investigative reporting,” Wilson says. “They have enough resources to make a difference.”

Local journalism nonprofits are starting to make their mark, including Crosscut in Seattle. The readersupported nonprofit was largely built on the work of expatriates of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which greatly reduced its staff when it went online-only in 2009.

Here in Idaho, the nonprofit Idaho Education News has seven employees, easily making it the state’s best education watchdog.

The Seattle Times has three grant-funded programs for special coverage of homelessness, education and traffic.

The Seattle Times has another advantage over many papers: dedicated family ownership.

Mark Higgins, ’82, B.A. journalism, now presides over the Seattle Times Opinion page as the deputy opinion editor.

Corporate media chains answer to shareholders. Families that own newspapers are typically more civic-minded than shareholders and usually more averse to cuts, Higgins says. The Seattle Times certainly hasn’t been immune to reductions, but the paper has weathered the storm better than other papers, thanks in part to the Blethen family, which owns a majority stake in the operation, Higgins says.

What kind of difference can ownership make? Compare my city of Boise, population 223,000, to Charleston, South Carolina, with about 134,000 people. The Statesman in Boise, owned by a large corporate newspaper chain, now has 10 reporters. The privately-owned Post and Courier in Charleston boasts more than three times as many reporters at 34, including an investigative team that won a Pulitzer in 2015 for a series on domestic violence.

“Local ownership is of critical value,” Higgins says. “You’ve seen how a corporate mindset can wrench a newsroom around from being productive and putting out highvalue content to one that’s been diminished, demoralized or both.”

Higgins, who as metro editor and senior digital editor led teams that helped the Times win two Pulitzer prizes, stresses that there is a bright future for those interested in a career in journalism.

“Today, more than ever, a free press is essential to democracy,” Higgins says. “At a macro level, there’s every reason to be optimistic about the role and power of the press. I'd encourage anybody seeking a career in journalism to follow their passion. And it takes passion. If you want to be in journalism, you can make it happen. But you have to hustle."

David Cuillier, ’90, B.A., journalism, worked in newspapers and journalism organizations in Washington and Idaho before coming to the University of Arizona, where he’s now director of the journalism school.

Mainstream media has helped its shrinking staffs by collaborating with other news organizations formerly seen as competitors, says Cuillier, who was president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2013-14.

I watched that play out in Idaho media, especially at the statehouse, where it makes more sense for four newspapers to cover four different hearings, then share their articles, instead of writing four stories about the same thing.

Collaboration will be the future of mainstream journalism because it has to be, Cuillier says, especially for time-intensive investigations. The Panama Papers is one recent, Pulitzerwinning example. Led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, reporters around the globe teamed up to digest 11.5 million documents released from a law firm that showed widespread money laundering using off-shore accounts. More than 150 government officials were implicated, including the prime minister of New Zealand, who resigned.

Cuillier says he wants to see newspapers and TV stations working together to expose corruption at the local level.

“The Panama Papers was neat, but I want to see that in every town,” Cuillier says. “Right now, cities and school districts play reporters off against each other. Journalists need to work together and not get sucked into that.

“Journalism is the last bastion for society for holding people in power accountable,” Cuillier continues. “I’m not sure if journalists realize how important their job is right now. I think it’s the most important job out there.”

And the traditional print and broadcast worlds are no longer the only viable career path for talented journalists.

Amy Harder, ’07, B.A., journalism, rose quickly through the print ranks and worked at the National Journal for six years before taking what she considered a dream job at The Wall Street Journal 2014.

Harder saw both publications go through rounds of cuts and buyouts, and the well-regarded National Journal suspended its print edition in 2015. She managed to “rise off of a sinking ship” because she was young and hungry and in part because she specialized in covering energy, global warming and environmental news and policy, a coveted expertise.

Harder’s niche—and the fact that she built a reputation as a down-the-middle reporter on often-politicized topics—led to unsolicited job offers from several national media outlets. Harder says she was in no hurry to leave The Wall Street Journal, but she accepted a job offer at a brand-new media startup called Axios, which offered “everything I wanted and more,” including a column on energy trends and the chance to do video stand-ups.

Harder left The Wall Street Journal for the online Axios for another reason: To be part of a new media company that she says represents the future of journalism.

“It can be hard for newspapers to rapidly adapt to the internet,” she says. “That’s what makes Axios more nimble. We don't have to deal with that print mindset.”

Based in Washington, D.C., Axios covers politics, media, technology and business and built its employee roster to more than 85—many poached from old-guard national outlets—and 10 paid interns after launching in January. The online-only publication promises to deliver fair and analytical coverage of complex issues in relatively short and digestible posts.

The Axios’ site includes a manifesto, which begins: “All of us left cool, safe jobs to start a new company with this shared belief: Media is broken—and too often a scam.” 

Harder is convinced she made the right decision.

“Media is not dying. It’s just changing,” she says. “It’s not just The Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Journalists should be flexible and open to working in places they weren’t considering in college.”

Harder turned 32 in September.

Is it telling that a young reporter already at the top of her field would leave one of print’s most prestigious publications for a fledgling website? Absolutely.

A more recent Western grad, Annika Wolters, says her career may also take an untraditional path.

Wolters was Western’s student body president before graduating in 2015 with a double major in visual journalism and communication. She attended graduate school at Arizona State University where she added to her print skills by anchoring shows on two public television stations as part of her year-long program at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She graduated with a master’s in sports journalism in August and is now surveying the job market.

Wolters says she’s been disappointed by the lack of critical thinking in broadcasting, both in the lack of scrutiny in stories by newsrooms and by the audience’s distaste for stories challenging their preconceptions.

“People don’t even care whether (boxer) Floyd Mayweather knows how to read,” Wolters says. “The fact is they are watching the fight because they don’t want to watch what other news is on.”

Wolters already had print chops—she won four Society of Professional Journalist awards for her work on The Western Front—and now can apply for work in TV and radio. Her youth should be an advantage. Longtime broadcast pros are adjusting to a changing field that now demands they shoot, interview, edit and produce TV segments on a daily deadline. Wolters has done that from the beginning.

She plans to apply to a wide swath of media jobs in TV and beyond, including work in corporate media. But given a choice, she would rather take an untraditional career path.

“People my age are looking for other sources, which creates a lot of other job opportunities for journalists who don’t want to work for CNN or for Fox,” Wolters says.

She says she sees opportunity in covering the marijuana industry, especially the friction between medicinal use, changing laws and professional sports.

“The cannabis industry is growing,” she says. “It’s all news. If you leave it up to the stoners to write it, it won’t be.”

Fred Obee, ’82, B.A., journalism, worked at small Washington newspapers before taking over as executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association in 2015. Young journalists can dabble in opportunities as they arise across the media spectrum instead of considering themselves purely print reporters, he says.

“Young people today have a much broader vision for how they can do good journalism than people like me, who always saw print journalism as be-all and end-all,” Obee says. “If you go into it with an idea of all of the different projects you could apply yourself to, the sky's the limit.”

But even the new, nimble generation will need a place to work. Government corruption may enjoy a golden era if papers and TV stations continue closing, Cuillier says.

But it won’t last.

“Corporate greed is what is killing journalism,” he says. “I want all those chains to die. We’re already seeing papers closing and news deserts forming around the country. This will be painful in the short-term. But from the ashes will emerge some good, quality journalism where organizations can accept a 2-percent profit margin. I hope those chains move into other industries that don’t require a higher purpose.”

I’ve read enough media earning reports to share Cuillier’s cynicism about mainstream media’s future. I’ve heard all of the buzzwords—“digital-first strategy,” “pivot to video,” “content optimization,” and the depressingly hilarious “news funnels”— and wonder if the media executives uttering them believe any of it.

But, like Cuillier, I have faith in journalism and hope in nontraditional outlets like ProPublica and Axios filling a void if some of the media chains go belly-up. I won’t be surprised when Harder breaks a big story online or when Wolters succeeds with or without mainstream media as her career escalator. I won’t be surprised when vets like Wilson and Higgins keep speaking truth to power.

And, despite my cynicism, I won’t be surprised if I find my way back into the news business, either. Too much work needs to be done.


Pulitzer Day: Mark Higgins, then the Seattle Times senior editor for digital news, hugs then-Executive Editor Kathy Best when the Times won the 2015 Pulitzer for breaking news for coverage of the Oso mudslide.
Amy Harder
Fred Obee

'07, B.A., journalism, worked for a decade in Idaho daily newspapers, most recently as a business reporter at the Idaho Statesman.