At this time last year, Christina Lords was thinking she might just be done with journalism.
She had just been fired as editor of the Idaho Statesman after she posted on Twitter that the company that owns the Boise newspaper, McClatchy, wouldn’t provide Microsoft Excel software for one of her reporters.
After years of fighting the Sisyphean battles of the 21st-century newspaper editor – shrinking staffs, circulation losses, corporate avarice, low pay and online pressure – she thought maybe she was done pushing that rock. Leaving the field would have been quite the change for the Idaho native and University of Idaho graduate, who also has worked at newspapers in Moscow, Idaho Falls and Nampa.
“My career has basically been covering local and state government, my whole life,” she said.
Then, following her Twitter dust-up with McClatchy and an outcry of support from her former staff, a friend from college helped connect her with the people who run States Newsroom, a national journalism nonprofit. Less than a year later, she and her three reporters are making a significant mark on Idaho news coverage, using a model that is upending many of the patterns that had her on the brink of leaving the business.
The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit newsroom, part of the States Newsroom’s national network of 23 capital news operations. It publishes stories on its web site, and those stories are available to others under the creative commons license – meaning they’re free to cash-strapped newsrooms.
That final point is crucial. The Capital Sun makes it possible for papers all over the region – many of which cannot afford to cover the statehouse – to have free, high-quality coverage of politics and government. It is helping to sustain journalism for the citizens of the state, not a single company, and the editorial decisions are made in Idaho by Idahoans.
In her initial conversations with the leaders of States Newsroom, Lords said, she asked what kinds of coverage they expected to see.
“They said, ‘No, no, no. You tell us what you think Idaho needs,’ ” she said.
‘Feeding the beast’
The travails of newspaper journalism are well-documented. As ad revenue has dried up and forms of online information have exploded, newspapers have cut staffs, eliminated days of publication and closed altogether.
According to the Pew Research Center, newspaper editorial employment plummeted by 57% between 2008 and 2020. The pace of this trend has been accelerating: From 2018 to 2020, according to a University of North Carolina study, almost 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers disappeared – and that was before the pandemic.
The effect of that on news reporting in communities has been profound; not only are staffs smaller, but the pressures to fill the same online and print space – what Lords calls “feeding the beast” – intensifies, making it harder and harder for editors to prioritize high-quality coverage, which takes time and expertise, over quick, shallow stories.
Statehouse coverage has been particularly hard hit. States Newsroom, which has grown from a single outlet in North Carolina to more than 26 separate operations around the country employing more than 100 journalists, aims to help reverse that trend. It includes operations in Oregon and Montana .
“It’s our goal to supplement and do what we can to fill the gap of the shrinking capital press corps,” said Chris Fitzsimon, the founder and director of States Newsroom.
The nonprofit raises money from foundations, individual donors and readers, and names major contributors on its web site. The project is one of many attempts to rethink the model of newspaper journalism and find new ways to produce news coverage for consumers.
“We have to start thinking about journalism as a public good as much as an industry,” Fitzsimon said. “It literally is part of the fabric of our democracy.”
Whereas competition and business considerations were key drivers of journalism for many years, what’s happening now puts an increasing emphasis on cooperation and collaboration.
“Shouldn’t we start thinking more strategically about the health of the democracy rather than, ‘Did we get the story up first?’ ” Lords asked.
The Capital Sun tries to post one well-reported, thorough story a day – but the priority is on making the stories as good as possible, and not an arbitrary deadline, she said.
‘So much to cover’
You can see the evolution of news coverage every day in this newspaper. Editor Rob Curley has drawn on nonprofit resources such as grant-funded reporter positions, and on community fundraising, to hire several reporters producing stories here, as well in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
These moves – which some old-timers were wary about initially, to say the least – have resulted in a more robust daily news report than many other newspapers offer. You’ll also see stories from the Capital Sun in these pages, along with bylined stories from other newspapers and nonprofit news organizations such as Crosscut News.
More and more frequently, instead of copyrighting and hoarding stories, news organizations are choosing to share them.
The journalism produced by The Spokesman-Review’s grant-funded reporters is available to anyone who wants it, so long as it’s credited, under the creative commons license. Same with the Capital Sun and Crosscut.
“I do think collaboration is vastly more important than it has ever been, because there are so few resources and so much to cover,” Fitzsimon said.
The statehouse project is a positive development in a field that is still facing major challenges. The health of community journalism – especially in small towns – is poor, and the negative effects on civic life, and on the ability of citizens to know what their government is up to, are real.
“It is not a replacement for a local newspaper that covers everything,” Lords said.
“I really encourage everybody to pay to subscribe to their local paper,” he said. “Legacy papers are still a foundation of the journalism ecosystem.”
In Idaho, the Capital Sun is providing deeply reported, high-quality work to citizens all over the state on its website and in the pages of newspapers that wouldn’t otherwise have access to such coverage.
Senior reporter Audrey Dutton has focused on health care and the pandemic, and she’s done excellent work tracking COVID-19 in the state, including a series of stories on the crisis of misinformation. Clark Corbin, a longtime Capitol reporter in Boise, tracks state government and politics, and Kelcie Moseley-Morris, another longtime Idaho reporter, focuses on fiscal policy.
They aren’t the only nonprofit doing journalism in Idaho – Idaho Education News is another – but they’re helping to give citizens of the state access to important information that they might not otherwise have had, produced by a team with a long resume of covering the state.
“Having the ability to have an experienced staff of Idahoans who have lived here so long makes a big difference,” Lords said.
Editor’s note: This column has been updated to correct the misspelling of Chris Fitzsimon’s name.
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