Like me, you probably have never heard of Warroad, Minnesota.
It’s a rural town of about 1,800 people and, as of May, it is a community without a newspaper.
The Warroad Pioneer had been the local news voice for more than 120 years, and its recent death made news in the New York Times. (See: Warroad Pioneer )
I read the Times account closely, because I’ve invested my life in producing quality news and finding ways to serve local needs. That’s what brought me back to Salem and the founding of Salem Reporter.
The story of Warroad is getting too familiar across the country. In too many places, there is not enough money, from advertising or subscribers, to pay the bills.
Just days after reading that story, I was talking with a colleague in California. She had just recently gotten off the phone with a respected publisher in Texas.
“She started crying,” the colleague said. “She said she was going to have to close.”
This is a newspaper with a reputation for tough reporting, for digging in where public officials don’t want anyone poking around.
And now comes word that two giants of newspaper ownership – Gannett and Gatehouse Media – are about to merge. Gannett owns the Salem daily, Gatehouse owns Eugene’s daily newspaper. Mergers usually are about cutting costs, but there isn’t much information about to expect from the consolidated company.
Now, trimming back or closing a newspaper is bad news for employees, who have sometimes held their jobs for years. It is bad for independent owners, who typically invest and invest, hoping to keep life in the paper.
But it’s also bad news for the communities they serve.
Local news services are easy to take for granted. Some have been around a long time. Several newspapers in Oregon have published for more than a century. Readers get accustomed to the routine – the news of a successful student, the photo of an award, the account of a school board meeting.
And the internet has made meeting those expectations ever more challenging. After all, Facebook and Twitter don’t cost anything. Anyone who can type can go online, toss out information and photos and “news” is born. Blogs serve as information services, with the reader left to judge what to trust.
But when it comes to vital community situations, such as Salem issues of city services and school performance, more than typing ability and opinion are needed. Reporters trained in pursuing the truth, in parsing fact from fiction, provide the community a trusted common source of information.
In the New York Times piece, the reporter noted: “There was also the reality that truth telling in a tiny town, while generating good copy, does not always generate love for the newspaper.”
And this: “What about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?”
The story quoted a Warroad resident: “Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51.
Hold their feet to the fire.
That’s one of the most essential duties for us at Salem Reporter. Indeed, it has won us resistance from powerful people in the community. Some in local government particularly would rather we didn’t tell you the entire story. What they are saying, in fact, is they rather we not trust the public with the truth. Censor the negative, promote the positive.
At Salem Reporter, we do publish the positive. We’ve featured high school students graduating despite challenges. We spotlighted the Sprague baseball team – playing tonight for the regional title.
But we’re not going to shy from telling the truth about how those in power use your authority and your money.
No other media – not one – does the investigative reporting we do for Salem.
Our reporters increasingly hear from people around town that they appreciate such journalism.
And we appreciate the compliments.
And we’re not asking for charity. We’ll earn every dollar we get from subscribers and advertising businesses.
We’re strong and determined. You can help keep us that way. Subscribe to our digital service. If you are among our many subscribers, help get out the word - encourage your friends and relatives to join in. Use us to market your business.
We’ll fight hard to give Salem the truth – fairly and accurately. We never want to go the way of the Warroad Pioneer – a community voice stilled, a day of joy for those in power who can operate without fear of exposure.
Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter
email: [email protected] or @leszaitz
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