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  • Writer's pictureClay Wirestone, Kansas Reflector

Opinion: Democracy’s warning signs flash ‘emergency’ as newsrooms shudder in Kansas and nationwide

Reporter Tim Carpenter takes notes while speaking with Kansas Reflector readers on June 29, 2024, at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe. (Grace Hills/Kansas Reflector)


By Clay Wirestone, Kansas Reflector


The hits just keep coming for Kansas news outlets.


The Gardner News has closed as of today, according to owner CherryRoad Media. Despite serving a community of 25,000, the newspaper has fewer than 200 subscribers.


On Friday, The Wichita Eagle announced it would issue only three print editions a week. Beginning in September, the paper will come out on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. That comes after the Wichita city council tried to stop publishing legal notices in the Eagle.


Meanwhile, Manhattan Mercury has announced plans to refocus its coverage.


News organizations across the country have faced tumult in recent weeks. The Washington Post has been losing money and firing top leaders. Oregon and Washington newspapers have absorbed a wave of job cuts. With the United States gearing up for yet another bitterly contested election season, I can hardly imagine a worse time for such decisions. We need a feisty and robust press to cover monstrous threats to democracy.


“Representation and accountability, these are the things that our democratic system relies on,” said UCLA’s Megan Mullin in an interview with LAist.


She co-wrote a study showing that robust coverage of infrastructure directly leads to public support of increased funding.


“And that representation and accountability rely on voters having access to information about the status of problems and the efforts of elected officials to solve those problems,” she said. “Staff cuts and corporatization of newspaper ownership structures, they’ve had a big impact on the information available to voters. As reporting capacity has declined, so has coverage of politics.”


You might wonder how Kansas Reflector has been doing and whether we are prepared to keep on serving Kansas like we’ve done in the past.


Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith, wearing a T-shirt that says “journalism is not a crime,” talks to a reader after the event at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe on June 29, 2024. (Grace Hills/Kansas Reflector)


The good news is that we absolutely are. We have more readers than ever. Those readers, according to a recent survey, profoundly appreciate what we do and recommend us to their friends. Our parent organization, States Newsroom, now has freestanding newsrooms or partnerships in all 50 states. We are strong and getting stronger.


The challenging news is that we can’t do this job alone. Kansas still enjoys abundant news outlets, staffed by talented reporters and editors. These publications are doing their damnedest to serve their fellow Kansas. I have no doubt that the Wichita Eagle will remain a great news source, even as it pivots to an online focus. CherryRoad continues to publish cherished small newspapers across the state. Kansas journalism has set an example for the nation.


But when I say we can’t do it alone, I’m writing about more than sheer journalistic capacity.

I mean the people of Kansas themselves must show they appreciate and use the news.


Perhaps that means you buy a subscription to a local newspaper. Perhaps that means you sign up for a newsletter from one outlet or another. Perhaps it means you make a donation to a public broadcasting station. Maybe you simply drop by a local news website now and then to scan the headlines. Whatever the case, these outlets can’t do it without you.


This was brought home to me Saturday, when Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith, reporter Tim Carpenter, intern reporter Grace Hills and myself spoke at a town hall meeting. Olathe’s Saint Andrew Christian Church welcomed us to its sanctuary, along with 100 Kansans. The audience asked us questions on topics including the U.S.-Mexico border, the Marion County Record newspaper raid and CNN’s decision not to fact check Donald Trump during the presidential debate.


Every time I’ve done one of these town halls, I walk away elated by the interest and enthusiasm of our readers.


But I also find myself apprehensive because more Kansans should be similarly engaged. It doesn’t have to be with us. But certainly with the world around them, the country and state and town in which they live. It’s going to be difficult to make it through this election season, I understand. Surveys tell us that a sizable number of voters are disenchanted with their options they have and feel pessimistic about the future.


As the States Newsroom Impact Report for 2023 puts it: “News coverage of state government has decreased dramatically at a time when human rights are under attack, misinformation is rampant and accurate news is hard to find and access. The stakes could not be higher.”


The answer cannot be to close our eyes.


Reflector opinion editor Clay Wirestone shares his thoughts with an audience member after the June 29, 2024, event in Olathe. (Grace Hills/Kansas Reflector)


We need Kansas residents to be more engaged, not less. We need more people following the news, not fewer. We need more voters believing they can make a difference, not despairing of being heard.


We know at this point that nothing replaces actual solid news reporting and commentary. Social media giant Meta has gotten out of the game altogether. Artificial intelligence programs, when they’re not simply generating pablum, hallucinate incorrect information.


In the meantime, the news business has staggered under the weight of changing readership habits, advertising defections, ownership machinations and sheer depression. But take it from someone who has spent nearly two decades in profession: We reach more readers now than have before. Even the smallest town’s newspaper or the tiniest website can serve hundreds of millions of readers, bandwidth permitting.


The challenge, then, is creating compelling stories and commentaries and building a sustainable model for journalists to do that work. Here at Kansas Reflector, we’ve done that through a nonprofit structure. But we’re also not the only ones. Across Kansas, other newspapers and news outlets are producing great journalism, reaching readers and doing so on a sustainable basis. But that doesn’t mean they can’t use your support. That means it’s more important than ever.


Let me get personal for a moment.


When I started at Kansas Reflector nearly three years ago, I had been out of journalism for four years. I did not expect to return. I came back because I have always wanted to be an opinion writer and editor. I also knew that Smith and the rest of the staff were doing outstanding work.


I had no idea at the time that I would become so personally and emotionally invested in Kansas Reflector and what we do. It’s a great joy to be here, to write these columns and interact with readers. You might think I’m about to ask you to donate or subscribe. If you want to, we welcome your support. But I would prefer that you support another Kansas outlet today. Help give another journalist the kind of amazing opportunity I received.


Most importantly, read. Follow the news and stay informed. Let others know the importance of understanding the world around you, even when that world is uncertain and dangerous.

Especially when that world is uncertain and dangerous.


Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.


This article was reprinted with permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.

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