President’s Column

Glimmers of hope in tough times
By Betsy Russell

When I asked our lead presenter at the recent Fall Conference how things were going at his paper, The Oregonian, I was startled by the answer: They’re cutting 70 positions in the newsroom. I shouldn’t have been startled. This, of course, is what’s going on in our industry right now. My own paper is cutting three more newsroom positions right now, and we’re all getting another week’s furlough on top of the earlier furlough week and the pay cuts. The Statesman laid off its photo editor and isn’t replacing her – they just won’t have one. The Times-News announced that its editor resigned and won’t be replaced, with the publisher instead taking on that role with help from the city and features editors.

We’re in a difficult time of shrinking resources and greater demands on those who are left, at the same time that our jobs have expanded in many ways in the new multimedia world of news. The only solace for those of us still in it is to do good work, to keep learning, and to take pride in work well done. This is where the Press Club can help.

This year’s Fall Conference, hosted by our Southwest Chapter, offered lots of thought-provoking material, from Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman’s complaints about her media coverage to attorney Brad Frazer’s guideposts as we venture through a new legal world as Internet journalists. But my real take-away was Len Reed’s discussion about the challenges we face in infusing meaning into our final product, in my case the article for the next morning’s print newspaper, after a full day of covering a breaking news story, posting repeatedly online, sending out reports in different forms ranging from photos to audio and video, and hitting so many angles already long before the paper is printed.

I thought about this the next time I covered a story that developed through the day, which happened to be a political story. Initially, as Len said, what mattered was What, as in, what happened? But for the readers the next morning, why and how were more important, along with: What does this mean? I stepped back and asked myself that question. I did more reporting, added information I hadn’t had during the breaking-news what-happened phase, information that added perspective and context. Then, of course, my story was too long, and I had to trim it. As usual, that was painful. But when it was done, my editor said it worked.

The Idaho Press Club’s mission is improving journalism in Idaho, and one way we do that is through our annual professional development conference in the fall. All of us, from the rookie reporter to the longtime veteran, can learn and improve. Another is by working for openness in government and freedom of information, which are essential both to our ability to do our work and to the functioning of our unique form of government. We do this through our 1st Amendment Committee, ably chaired by Vice President Kevin Richert, and our lobbying efforts, this year to be handled pro-bono by Gallatin Public Affairs.

A third way we work to improve journalism is through recognition of excellence in our annual journalism contest. This is an opportunity for all Idaho journalists to select their best work, submit it in competition, receive constructive feedback from judges who are professionals in the business from outside our state, and possibly win an award, whether it’s a handsome plaque for your wall or a well-earned honorable mention certificate. The awards matter. They look good on your resume, and tell a future employer you do outstanding work. They provide the positive reinforcement for doing good work that sometimes, in our busy and much-crimped news organizations, may not come from the organization itself. They counter the negative feedback journalists sometimes get in their communities from challenging the status quo or the established order with new information, facts and solid reporting.

Most importantly, the awards, and even simply the process of going through our work and selecting our best, provide something important to all of us as we slog through the toughest of times in the news industry: A reminder that, at the end of the day, we’ve done good work in our own eyes. That’s worthwhile, and it matters.

The deadline for entering our annual Excellence in Journalism contest, to compete to have your work named among the “Best of 2009,” is coming up in January. Take a look at the work you’ve done this past year, despite everything else. Remind yourself of its value. Enter the contest, and then come join us this spring at the annual awards banquet and celebrate the good work that Idaho journalists do.

Betsy Russell is a Boise based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is the president of the Idaho Press Club.