The future of journalism is bright, even as the future for journalists looks grim.
I’ll start with the bad news first because it’s a doozy. In the 15 years before COVID-19 hit, half of all local journalism jobs disappeared as the industry’s advertising-led business model was upended by technology. Sure, digital outlets absorbed some of that loss, but from 2008 to 2020, total newsroom employment fell by 26%.
It gets worse. What Google and Facebook started, the pandemic accelerated, with tens of thousands of media workers laid off, furloughed or hit with lower wages. And let’s not even talk about the assault on the profession as part of efforts to undermine democracy around the world and at home.
Having said all that, why then am I bullish about the future? Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending too much time with high schoolers lately.
Fight the power: Jimmie Nguyen and Oscar Pecan, both 15, are students at Capital High School in Olympia and part of KOUG-TV, the school’s news and entertainment service. They’re old hands at this journalism thing, starting when they were in seventh and sixth grade, respectively.
They told me that after an interview earlier this month with Frank Wilson, executive director of operations at the Olympia School District, their adviser received an email. It said that going forward, the students were not allowed to speak with any staff that answers to Wilson without first clearing it with his office.
The students felt the interview went well, as seen on KOUG-TV’s YouTube channel, but believe that Wilson did not like being questioned about missing soap dispensers in the student restrooms.
“He’s now asking to approve the content, what we’re going to talk to them about, and by allowing or denying these interviews, it’s really just trying to restrict our access to everyone he supervises,” Pecan said.
They sought clarification from district officials but heard nothing for more than a week. Not coincidentally, their adviser received a response the same day I spoke with Susan Gifford, the district’s director of communications.
Gifford said there had been a misunderstanding. Any requirement had to do with time management for staff, helping potential interviewees prepare to be more confident and comfortable and that it was standard to inform the district about media requests, whether they came from outside or from students.
“We want the kids to be supported, our student journalists,” she said. “We’ve always accommodated interviews of what they need. But again, during work hours, (Wilson) wants to be informed.”
This sounds reasonable. But ask any reporter who’s ever filed a records request, and they will tell you of the thousand missed deadlines that can fit between policy and practice.
Uncooperative officials can drag their feet, find excuses, hope you lose interest — or, if you’re a student, hope you come down with a terminal case of senioritis. It’s all about controlling information.
Still, I’m willing to give the district the benefit of the doubt. But, as I said, these young people are pros.
“It’s a bit ridiculous that this is what we have to go through,” Pecan said. “I mean, these are just basic rights that are listed out for journalists, especially in this state where they’re so plainly laid out.”
Washington is one of only 15 states with laws specifically covering student journalists. In 2018, the Legislature passed the bipartisan New Voices Act, which protects students in public schools and colleges, as well as their advisers, from censorship and retaliation.
Whether the Olympia School District’s actions rise to the level of censorship, I’ll let the lawyers figure out. The students are in contact with the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center, so stay tuned.
Kids today: I can tell you that Nguyen and Pecan are not alone. They’re part of a large group of students from across the state who have impressed me with their dedication and commitment to the principles of journalism.
Earlier this month, I participated in the Washington Journalism Education Association’s state conference, held at Mercer Island High School. About a week later, I sat in as a group of students interviewed Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who meets with young reporters every few months.
In both cases, students had questions and ideas that I wish I’d thought of (I did warn them I would steal them), and the kind of energy and excitement about journalism that is infectious. It’s an old joke among reporters that the first thing you ask someone studying journalism is “why,” but it’s meant with love.
There are other questions, less charitable in tone, that students hear, according to Mariah Valles, a young senior producer at KHQ in Spokane, who moderated the Reykdal news conference.
“When I was in high school, and honestly, even in college, I was always asked, ‘Why do you care? What impact do you think you’re really going to make? You’re just a kid,’” she said.
The answers to those questions, and the determination of the students I’ve met to face the challenges ahead, are why I am optimistic about the future of journalism.
They care. They’re going to make an impact — and they grow up fast.