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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: This is how funding for a new racial equity reporter went from wishful thinking to reality

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 12, 2020

In some ways, it seems audacious.

With newsrooms across America getting smaller by the day, it’s crazy-wishful thinking that a community our size might get more reporters. Especially right now, as the industry’s long lifeblood – advertising – dries up to the point that some newspapers simply close shop.

It’s probably even more ludicrous to hope the community might help pay for those new reporters to cover the things we all know we need to understand more about.

Yep, “audacious” is probably the right word.

But another word to describe it might be “real” – because that’s exactly what continues to happen here in Spokane. It happened again this week.

Members of this community worked with the Innovia Foundation to create a reporter position that’s really not been seen in our hometown. Starting later this month, we will begin a nationwide search for a journalist to cover race relations and racial equity issues full-time for this region. Sure, the reporter will cover more than just those things … because all sorts of stories regarding our communities of color deserve to be told – and will. It’s just that we can’t lose sight of what the emphasis needs to keep returning to. The protests we saw in our streets this summer are a reminder that they really are the voices of the unheard.

We have been working on finding funding for this position for nearly three years. Despite all of that work, it all came together in just the past few months. And in an unexpected way. We’d reached out to so many organizations, universities, foundations and even individuals across our community and state.

It was an unexpected phone call from someone none of us had met that made all the difference.

Michael Conley wanted to talk with us about some of the new things we’ve been doing tied to the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund at Innovia. It was one of those talks that lasted hours. Literally. When you get a chance to talk with others who share so many of the same concerns, and also have no interest in trying to do the same things others keep doing, time flies. Sometimes, just hearing someone talk about shared values and beliefs is its own reward.

So, when the discussion was over, the validation for doing all we can to make this community better and more equitable tomorrow was reward enough.

Until a second phone call a week or two later, when we were told the Michael Conley Charitable Fund wanted to post a $50,000 matching gift to hire a reporter to do all of the things we discussed. From there, it didn’t take long for the challenge to not only be matched, but exceeded with a generous $60,000 commitment by Sharon Smith and Don Barbieri from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund.

That meant this journalist was now completely funded for the next two years, while work was also underway to keep the position funded almost indefinitely. At the funders’ request, the reporter position will be named in honor of Carl Maxey, an influential civil rights leader and the first prominent Black attorney in Spokane.

Like the other reporter positions our community and other foundations – like Report For America – have helped create over the past couple of years in Spokane, the work of these journalists isn’t owned by The Spokesman-Review, nor is it exclusive to this newspaper. Stories by these reporters do not fall under The Spokesman-Review’s copyright and instead carry a Creative Commons license, meaning they can be published by any organization and are not behind any sort of online paywall. The work by these journalists is essentially owned by this community.

That’s how we ended up with a new health reporter a couple of years ago, a second reporter at the Statehouse in Olympia and a full-time reporter in D.C. to cover our region’s delegates and better explain how the things that happen in that Washington affect the one we live in.

There is another interesting nuance tied to this race relations and racial-equity issues position: This reporter will work closely with not only The Spokesman-Review but also with The Black Lens newspaper. As the Black Lives Matter protests reverberated throughout our community, The Black Lens’ importance to this region became even more obvious.

The Spokesman-Review began running pages dedicated to stories from The Black Lens and continues to do that. But The Black Lens needs more resources, as well. More importantly, this new position deserves to also be led by the editor of The Black Lens so that the right stories and biggest issues continue to get covered.

The best part is that our community is going to see more and more of this new approach to local journalism. Yes, just funding the new positions we already have is a problem – and we hope it’s clear that we need your help to continue to have them – but we also know more are coming. More people are realizing that, instead of wishing there were more types of local stories in the media, they not only can make that sort of coverage happen, they can do it in a way that’s actually owned by the community and not a corporation.

Doing this also shows something else: It puts the community back into “community journalism.” Working together with Innovia and our newsroom, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund and the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, that’s exactly what just happened. It’s also the first of these sorts of reporter positions to be funded 100% locally.

Come to think of it, “audacious” isn’t the right word.

No, it’s “grateful” – especially knowing so many of you across Eastern Washington and North Idaho care enough about local journalism that you’re willing to step in to make sure our community’s issues and history get told – in the next day’s Spokesman-Review or the next month’s issue of The Black Lens. Or anywhere.

Because it’s your journalism.

Rob Curley can be reached at (509) 459-5030 or at robc@spokesman.com

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