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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: Why America needs journalists – and the T-shirts to prove it

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 20, 2019

I like Facebook. Even with all of its problems.

It’s where I keep up with my friends and the people I care the most about. The people I grew up with in my tiny hometown. My college buddies. The wannabe rock stars in the various bands in which I tried to play guitar. (You should see how awesome I looked in acid-washed jeans, with the biggest ’80s hair this side of Texas.)

Facebook is also where I get to catch up with all of the talented and interesting people I’ve met while working at newspapers across the nation. Most important, there’s my family. Every day feels like a virtual Curley reunion.

With that wide range of people, my Facebook friends couldn’t be more different. Their interests, and opinions, are all over the spectrum.

Yet I love hearing their complaints about our favorite teams losing again, or how cool their new house is or that their kids are now dating and wondering if there is an easy or moderately legal way to get an offspring’s Snapchat password.

That’s pretty much the stuff I post there, too.

I love T-shirts. I buy so many that I expect nearly every phone call from an area code I don’t recognize to be Marie Kondo trying to schedule an intervention.

My goofy shirts absolutely spark joy.

On Sunday, I Facebooked my latest comfortable cottony blue beauty, a shirt that simply said: America Needs Journalists. Along with the image, I posted that “I don’t care if you have an R or a D behind your name, people documenting the living history of our communities has never been more important.”

Almost immediately, a friend from my hometown responded that journalists needed to just report the news and not give our opinions.

Before we get any further in this little tale, you need to know something: Facebook is my happy place.

If someone “friends” me and then posts all sorts of polarizing political stuff or is negative or picks fights or figures out how to make everything about the government, I unfriend them quicker than Mark Zuckerberg can book a flight to testify before Congress. I will defend their right to post their beliefs until the cows come home, but that doesn’t mean I have to read about them. Especially in my happy place.

So, you can see how this post put me in a weird spot.

Other people might love to argue on social media, but not me. Then it hit me that maybe this wasn’t an argument. Maybe this was a moment to explain to my Facebook friends who weren’t journalists what local journalists actually do.

In my real life, this has worked in almost unbelievable ways in the past, so why not try it in my Facebook world?

I’ve given so many tours of The Spokesman-Review and invited so many people to attend our daily news meetings, that I know how visitors are going to react before we’ve even begun. Responses are basically some variation of: “This isn’t anything like I thought it would be. You all don’t do any of the things I thought you did or talk about any of the things that I just knew you talked about.”

And someone on the tour always asks about “fake news.” Or “alternate facts.” So, that’s where you start.

By definition, facts are not opinions. Facts are verifiable. The problem is that in our highly polarized world, a lot of people don’t seem to understand the difference between facts and beliefs. Both are important, but they are not the same thing.

When we say in The Spokesman-Review – or in any local newspaper – that there has been a certain amount of snow in our region over the past two weeks, that’s the truth – it’s a fact. Saying how much snow we received overnight is not a political statement or opinion.

When we say that the county election office is reporting that a local levy passed or failed by a certain number of votes, we are reporting what we have been told by those officials. This may be politics, but the vote totals are certainly not political or opinion.

When we say a road is closed for construction, it is. Potholes are not political. When we say that Gonzaga has won by a certain number of points, it did. A basketball score is not political.

An important difference here is with columnists who have run in newspapers for literally centuries. Columnists are asked to use opinion and perspective to explain things. My favorite writer when I was growing up was Topeka Capital-Journal columnist Bob Hentzen. With columnists, opinion is a feature, not a flaw. On TV, Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow are the equivalent of video columnists.

But this isn’t what local journalists do.

We explain when our favorite doughnut shop will reopen or why our crops need more rain or if the roads on your drive home are closed. These things aren’t opinion.

We don’t offer opinions about those things, so why would journalists only insert their opinions into other types of stories? We don’t. The reporters I know are some of the hardest-working people on the planet who don’t have enough time in their day to do anything other than research and report the local stories they’re working on. And then they do it all over the next day.

People who work in local journalism care very much about their communities and they work incredibly hard at something that pays terribly and has almost no job security. They do it because they love telling the stories of their community. They take their responsibility of informing their neighbors about important things seriously. Their hearts are in the right place.

For many, this isn’t a job as much as it is a calling.

Yet these journalists often only hear from people who tell them what a terrible job they’ve done. Or even mock them. Sometimes from the highest levels.

I was raised to be respectful of our president, even in disagreement.

So when the very job I’ve wanted to do since I was a child is described in such disparaging ways by him, there was only one way to respond. We waited until our first big snow and, inspired by other papers across the nation, then ran a headline that showed our readers this was exactly where to turn to get “Flake News.”

Besides, everyone loves to read a good weather story.

Thomas Jefferson famously hated the media. Yet he also understood more than most the role it played in an informed democracy.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson wrote.

Yet here in Washington, and even Spokane, our lawmakers struggle with this idea.

Once again, our state legislators tried to craft a law that would let them keep key components of their work outside of the public’s eye. Last year, our City Council approved rules that would allow them to decide which news organizations were “bona fide” in covering certain local police work.

Which leads you to wonder if we can’t have mandatory civics classes for elected officials. Or maybe what they need is to just read a local newspaper.

After my Facebook post Sunday, I was flooded by requests from people – friends, family, journalists, even people I’ve never met – as to where they too could get a shirt that says “America Needs Journalists.”

Well, we’re going to make them.

We’re not doing this to make money, because if the current economic realities have taught us anything about local journalism, it’s that we have absolutely no clue on how to make money doing this in 2019.

We’re making these shirts because America does need journalists.

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