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Journalists: Those Who “Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable.”

By: Luci Hagen

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Photo credit: Sonoma West

Local journalism has always been a principal factor to support a fully functioning society. It allows for unity in communities by letting everyone in on the whereabouts of everything from local business owners and town fairs to global issues such as Covid-19 and precautions to take for the virus depending on the area. Despite this it faces so much criticism, neglect, and journalists have even been subjected to physical violence. Instead, people turn to social media for news, where they receive stories that are tailored to find them and trigger emotions instead of present facts. Gone is the time where you would pick up the newspaper from your driveway and read articles from professional journalists trained in their field, articles about national news from a mostly unbiased writer. Or, on a more local level, a simple spotlight on the local FFA fair or the movie theater reopening, little things that make a town unique. Despite the uncertainty of local journalism, there is still hope for its survival, an example of this being that it has become a reliable source of information for Covid-19 updates that varies from community to community.  

 Great change has been slowly eroding the classic system of local journalism away. . Katherine Minikiwiz, a journalist for the Healdsburg Tribune and a social media planner for the Sonoma West Times and News, said, “One of the things, that not necessarily is a new change but has been happening for a while, is the idea that anyone can be a journalist through social media, that anyone can post some form of  information whether it be through a tweet or a tik tok video, or really anything.” She went on to state that people have the opinion that social media will relay all the information about politics that one needs. Minikiwiz stresses the true purpose of journalism, which to her is that what they are providing their readers is not just facts but “different perspectives on different things”. Journalists can also “go places and see things that not the normal person can see.” She states,“We can hear the first hand stories of how a firefighter saved this one home. Not everyone can do that.” This is something that often gets overlooked, because local news gets the pleasure of reporting on the unique aspects of every community, from a personal level.  

Although social media has found a place among journalists, including Heather Bailey, the editor for the Windsor Times newspaper as well as the newsletter editor for Sonoma West Times, she spoke about the damage it has caused for journalism as a whole. Bailey said, “I think the detriment is that they create sort of an echo chamber, where people only believe news that agrees with their perspective and their opinion, rather than consuming facts.” She added that this is “extremely disheartening and frustrating” to journalists, because their job is to present facts, but anyone can find anything on the internet to support their point of view, whether it is a legitimized fact or not.

Local journalists have had a major change in reaching their audience. Zöe Strickland, the editor of the Cloverdale Reveille, said, “In addition to trying to figure out how to make people pay attention to verified news, it's also a challenge of how to best reach them, trying to reinvent what meeting readers halfway means because people aren't going to look to print first. I feel like something we are trying to do more of in recent months locally and just journalism in general that has been trying to figure out is how to reach the audience they want to reach when there is all this other noise out there.” 

Originally, journalists were paid by advertising in the paper, but now face major changes to that classic system. Rollie Atkinson, owner of the Sonoma West Times (which includes Healdsburg Tribune), said, “That business model has been broken, disrupted by facebook and other internet giants where the ad model is not there anymore so journalists now have to figure out a different way to be paid.” He added later that another big change was the increase of physical abuse at demonstrations and protests. “People of authority call out the journalists and press as being enemies of the people, and say to not trust the media. What they need to understand is we are doing our jobs but we are often the most under attack when we do our job the best we can do it.” 

An overlooked part of journalism is that journalists have to think about the dynamics of power in a community and what their role is in serving that community. Camille Escovedo, the newest recruit to the Healdsburg Tribune and a fresh college graduate, added that, “You also need to know that the person you’re talking to doesn’t owe you anything. How do you show that you are a trustworthy person to convey their personal stories to? Having an authentic interest in the wellbeing of my community, and what the people in the county need to know to be informed is especially important with big issues like the pandemic.” 

Journalism's future is complete foreign territory in the minds of most journalists. Bailey jokingly said, “I think if we knew the answer to that [the future of journalism] we’d all be retired by now!” Atkinson began by saying, “There absolutely has to be a future for local journalism. There has to be local news, without it you really cannot function as a society or community. Someone has to be an aurbiture of facts, someone has to do the fact checking and hold the government accountable. There has to be someone that doesn’t have personal interest as their first interest, and who’s first interest is in public trust and keeping everybody honest.” In addition he spoke about how big companies such as Google or Facebook don’t employ journalists, rather they “read stories, repeat, and twist them” from people such as the “living, breathing journalists” I interviewed. He stated, “We don't know what the future is going to be or how we're going to do it, but we know if journalists go away lots of the rest of the society we live in goes away too. It would be very, very different.”

The path to finding their place and career for journalists greatly varies from person to person. Strickland began by saying she was surprisingly not interested in journalism at all until she was hired on her university’s school newspaper, and she’d originally aimed for her career path to be in book publishing. But she said it made sense she liked journalism because it is heavily English based. “But I think what captured me about journalism despite all the weird turmoil, is that it allows me to connect with people in the community while also by way of writing articles to connect people in the community with each other and that's the part that keeps me doing it.” 

Bailey similarly did not necessarily go into journalism with the plan of being a journalist. In fact, she was a competitive equestrian for the majority of her life and competed nationally and internationally, and was introduced to journalism by being asked to intern at a horse board for a weekly horse boards magazine. “It kind of stuck, although over a period of the next fifteen to twenty years I’d sort of worked off and on. I’d held positions to other jobs, but I always kept on the freelancing side of things. But, a couple years ago I needed to make a change to a more permanent type job, my body was worn out after a lifetime of equestrian pursuits!”

Escovedo, although not as experienced as the rest of the group and just entering journalism in the past couple years, started paying more and more attention to the press after Michael Brown Jr. was shot. “I realized after I liked learning about a lot of that by reading a ton of articles and blogs. I went in to study sociology and wanted to study influences that lead to issues we face. I really liked the part of journalism that people can report back on other studies and communicate them to the general public,” Escovedo said.

In contrast, Atkinson has been involved in journalism since 1974, and began by working at his local newspaper. Though his college degree was in education, he also studied community sociology and how communities functioned. “But what really got me into journalism”, he stated, “Was I wanted to catch all the bad guys and I wanted to change the world. I've caught quite a lot of bad guys and a couple got put in jail. In general, journalists, while we don’t really say it out loud, we’re really motivated to make the world a better place.”

All the journalists on the panel outlined severe issues that journalists face, and every single person could not say what they thought could save it, or what they believed its future held. Atkinson mentioned early on a favorite journalism quote of Minikiwiz, written by Finely Pete Dunneor under his writing alter ego of Mr. Dooley: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.'' The meaning of this famous phrase has evolved over time, and been taken by all in a variety of ways. But to most, the message has been that a journalist role is to challenge the power of the comfortable (those who have it the best but who can be corrupt and cause problems for the less fortunate) and comfort those less fortunate (shining light on their hardships and rallying support for them.) Without journalists, without local news, who will be there to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? To keep communities honest and to protect the truth? 

These questions have yet to be answered, but a recurring theme was that despite these issues, these people will not leave journalism. When I asked Atkinson about whether or not it has been hard hiring for journalism despite all the drawbacks of Covid-19, as well as the backlash and decline in recent years, he replied that it hadn’t been hard at all, and that they’d just employed Escovedo three weeks ago. This small detail from the interview, as well as remarks from all of the participants, shows that journalists of the US will not let journalism be delivered its final blow without a passionate fight.

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