Sometimes you hear a story that grabs you — someone does something heroic and it inspires you to try something heroic too. That’s what...
Scott Swafford started in journalism 27 years ago, when he was a video rental clerk at The Video Castle, in Kirksville. Nobody in town had a VCR yet, so they rented those out too. His boss at The Video Castle was also a reporter at the Kirksville Daily Express, and the runaway success of the video rental business was cutting into his time in the newsroom. He was thinking about quitting the paper to work the store full-time.
“I said, ‘Well, Todd, I’m a pretty good writer, and I’d much rather be a newspaper reporter than a video store clerk,’” Swafford says. “So he took me down to meet the publisher, and the next day, I was a reporter. I had no editor, so stuff went in the paper exactly as I wrote it. I didn’t realize how much that should have frightened me then.”
Swafford started as a reporter at the Fulton Sun when his wife got a job in Columbia; he left that paper as its managing editor when he moved over to the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he spent two years as a reporter, nine years as assistant city editor, and one year as systems training editor, a position in which he was responsible for training the Tribune’s staff on a new computer system. He moved to the Columbia Missourian as a city editor in 2002 and has stayed there since, handling the scores and scores of young reporters that cycle through Columbia to cover the news, big and small, for a little while.
People joke that Columbia, thanks to MU’s venerated journalism program that Swafford has been a part of for 15 years, has the highest per capita density of reporters anywhere in the country; as far as I could find, that actual data doesn’t exist, but it’s not hard to believe. That a city of 120,000 has two daily newspapers, an alt-weekly, three broadcast TV newsrooms, an NPR-affiliate radio newsroom, roughly a half-dozen regularly published magazines (including this one), and a handful of news-focused blogs, talk shows, and various other new media projects is unusual. It’s especially unusual given that the national trends for the industry have been ugly for most of the 21st century. Pew Research found that revenue from professional newsgathering fell by $30 billion dollars, or about 30 percent, between 2006 and 2014; more recent Pew research isn’t any more encouraging for local publishers, especially those in “traditional” media.
But, of course, the density of reporters and news outlets isn’t an accurate barometer of the news economy’s health in Columbia. “The reality is that it’s a competitive environment,” says Randy Reeves, news director at KOMU 8, Columbia’s highest-rated TV broadcaster. “It’s always going to be a competitive environment. And for TV, it’s as competitive as it’s ever been — we’re not only competing against the ABC and CBS affiliates, we’re competing against the Missourian, the Tribune, the [Jefferson City] News-Tribune, and anyone else who has access to the internet and wants to share what they know.”
The dividing lines between the city’s media outlets — newspapers, magazines, TV stations, radio stations — have been largely blurred by the advent of the digital, 24/7 news cycle. And as revenues have gone down, as they have for journalists all across the country, news outlets — particularly the ones unaffiliated with MU’s journalism school, which provides a consistent, unpaid reporting corps — have had to compete with fewer resources. The Tribune, still the city’s widest circulating newspaper, has laid off more than a dozen employees since being purchased in the fall of 2016 by GateHouse Media, the parent company of 125 daily newspapers across the country, including nine in Missouri. In an article defending the paper’s cuts, Tribune Publisher Rustan Burton wrote, “A quick comparison of our expenses to another paper of our size would show that we have been on an unsustainable path for a long time.”
Burton’s assertion is that Columbia’s quirky news infrastructure — the mix of seasoned, paid journalists and unseasoned, unpaid ones — is still built on the same foundation that local media markets across the country are built on, and that foundation isn’t especially sturdy.
Burton’s letter (which included a metaphor comparing laid-off staffers to tree limbs in need of pruning) drew almost universal ire from Tribune readers. There are still a lot of journalists and a lot of publishers in Columbia. There always will be. But, in 2017, in a Mid-Missouri town, pointing to the number of reporters at every city council meeting is an increasingly ineffective way to gauge a city’s relationship with its corps of news breakers.
“Columbia’s growing at a rapid pace,” Swafford says. “And newsrooms aren’t growing to keep up with that.”
Swafford still edits faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. He edits faster than I can type. He edits faster than I can read. He might edit faster than I can think. When he’s going through a reporter’s story at the computer designated for whoever the Missourian city editor on shift is, roughly in the middle of the newsroom, his fingers twitch and tap constantly, erasing and creating words, punctuation, sentence structures, paragraphs, fluidly sculpting rough copy — often among the first copy someone will ever publish — into something passably professional. I watched Swafford edit like this on my first day doing journalism ever, Labor Day 2014, when I was a student reporter at the Missourian, and I was watching him do it again a few weeks ago. Only this time it was some other poor kid’s copy under the knife.
“Alright,” Swafford says.
“We’re good?” the reporter asks.
“Yep.” Swafford says.
The reporter shuffles off. Another one steps up and takes his place. “Hey Scott? You wanted to talk to me about this county commission thing?”
The commission was having a closed work session at the Boone County Government Center later that afternoon; Swafford was going to send the reporter out to, as he put it, “politely ambush” one of the commission members afterward to see if there’d be anything to write about.
“Alright, do you know where the county government building is?” Swafford asks.
He doesn’t. Swafford tells him.
“I’m thinking Dan Atwill’s going to be the guy to talk to on this,” he says. “Do you know what he looks like?”
“Of course you don’t,” Swafford grins. He pulls up a picture of Atwill on the computer and turns the monitor toward the reporter. “That’s him. Really nice guy.”
I joke about this a couple minutes later, when we’re sitting in Swafford’s office. “Yeah, he doesn’t know him,” Swafford laughs. “Same thing with city council. I have 18 local government reporters right now, and I bet that one of them can name all the council members. Maybe more.”
The vast majority of journalists filing stories in Columbia are MU students, and most of them start their jobs with little to no foundational knowledge about the city they’re covering. Speaking from relatively recent experience, it’s hard to take a deep dive into research for, say, a decade-long debate about power lines in south Columbia when you also have to cram for a statistics midterm. So for the MU-affiliated newsrooms in town that focus on local coverage — the Missourian and its weekly magazine, Vox; KBIA-FM; KOMU 8 — a lot of time is spent getting reporters up to speed. “All the newsrooms have a dual mission,” says Ryan Famuliner, KBIA’s news director. “The first is to serve our audience, the second is to educate students. Ideally, those two overlap, but early in a semester, it definitely tilts more toward educating students.”
KBIA has between 50 and 100 students working in some capacity every semester; about 25 of those students are what Famuliner calls “baby reporters,” journalists who are learning the basics and turning in 45-second stories on city council. But KBIA also has three professional public radio reporters doing their own work, and while student reporters are doing day-turn stories, KBIA’s professional staff is freed up to take on more ambitious projects, often in rural areas around Columbia. “There’s so much journalism happening here,” Famuliner says. “I mean, any car crash or fire you go to, there’s going to be six microphones there. So rather than sending one of our microphones there to be the seventh, I’d rather send them out and find somebody no one’s talking to.”
Famuliner uses a reporting framework called “The Five Tiers of Local News Coverage” to direct KBIA’s reporting. Tiers 1 and 2 are what generally fill up newspapers and local newscasts: car crashes, fires, meetings, etc. Tiers 3, 4, and 5 are meatier — stories that genuinely reflect the unique culture and meaning of the communities they’re about. Famuliner figures that KBIA probably won’t add much value to the local news landscape by covering Tier 1 and 2 stories, so they focus on the bigger stuff instead. “After the election, there was a lot of soul-searching in journalism about like, ‘Oh, we need to get out and talk to people more,’” Famuliner says. “We were kinda already doing that. So now we just need to make sure more people are hearing it.”
All the MU newsrooms take some variation on this feature-focused approach. Since they have 80 to 90 percent staff churn every four months, their reporters can’t develop the institutional knowledge and source relationships that, say, the Tribune reporters do. What the MU newsrooms do have is a numbers advantage. The Missourian has 18 local government reporters; the Tribune has two. Each has to play to their strengths. “I think the Missourian has always made an effort to go out there and cover under-covered stories and cover government stories from the perspective of the communities affected by those decisions,” Swafford says. “And I think we do election coverage better than anybody. We take that kind of thing very seriously.”
“I think [our audience] is looking for more investigative work than ever before,” says Reeves, from KOMU. “And we’ve done research that bears that out to be true. They want us to be their watchdog, holding everybody from the governor on down accountable for their actions. . . . They’re also looking for good storytelling. Everybody’s going to tell you what the mayor said at the city council meeting, and we’re going to keep covering that, but we want to do more than that as well.”
The approach produces good journalism — KBIA and KOMU are both frequent Edward R. Murrow award winners, and the second floor Lee Hills Hall, which houses the Missourian, is essentially wallpapered with copies of award-winning articles from the past year. But the MU newsrooms are built on the understanding that their competition is also going to do a good job maintaining the day-to-day drumbeat of local news. From the consumer’s perspective, there’s always been a redundancy system, a safety net for local news coverage: with so many journalists running around, somebody will always be covering whatever angle a student reporter might miss. But the safety net is thinning out.
To hear about the Tribune’s news gathering operation, I reached out to Matt Sanders, who’s been the paper’s city editor since 2013. He said thanks, but that all interviews with the paper have to go through the publisher, Burton, and the managing editor, Charles Westmoreland. I emailed them. Westmoreland declined.
Fortunately, the same day he sent that email, Westmoreland also posted the first column in a weekly series the Tribune is calling “Editor’s Corner.” In the first installment, “Keeping promises to staff, readers,” Westmoreland addresses the paper’s ongoing challenge to cope with a reduced reporting staff.
“For months our staff was spread too thin as they attempted to carry the workload of their recently-departed colleagues,” he writes. “When a team is spread too thin, planning becomes impossible, training takes a backseat, and in the end quality control suffers. This was one of the first things I addressed.”
Westmoreland wrote the paper has cut back on certain content — some of the weekly lifestyle sections and the weekday comics — with plans to reinvest their resources in local coverage. “That’s our first priority, and from listening to your feedback, local news is what you want most,” he writes.
The Tribune was founded in 1901. It was the city’s first daily paper. In 1905, the wife of Henry J. Waters Sr. bought the paper for $3,000. She gave it to her brother, Ed Watson, and when he died, in 1935, the paper came back to the Waters family, where it stayed until 2016. The Tribune, under the Waters family’s ownership, became a civic institution — it was part of the permanent cultural fabric of Columbia, something the city was proud of.
“During the time I was there,” Swafford says, “I think the Tribune was a really good newspaper — well designed, we were everywhere covering just about everything. But I don’t think it was as good of a newspaper as it was back in, oh, the mid ’80s, early ’80s, late ’70s. Back in those days, it really had a reputation of being one of the best papers in the country, especially for its size.”
The Tribune is, of course, still the paper of record, Columbia’s most consistent and reliable source of local news. It’s still a Columbia newspaper. But it’s owned by a company from upstate New York; it’s designed and copy edited largely from Austin, Texas; its website, save from the Tribune logo in the top left corner, is indistinguishable in design from the dozens of GateHouse newspapers across the country.
The Missourian’s new tagline, “Read local,” is a not-so-subtle appeal to the sentiment that something distinctly Columbia-esque is missing from the new Tribune. Westmoreland’s new weekly column seems to be an intentional effort to rebuild trust with readers who had read, one year earlier, before multiple waves of layoffs and retirings, “We believe in the newspaper, we believe in its people and we are excited that by leveraging the national resources of GateHouse Media we can take this local company to greater heights than ever before.”
Burton’s tree-pruning editorial is right in saying that the challenges the Tribune has gone through are the same challenges that newspapers of its size all across the country are going through — but those challenges can be jarring for readers. Especially in a city that’s built so much pride in its press.
In a lot of ways, 2017 is a time of opportunity in journalism. Social media has created an unprecedented opportunity for reporters to interact with readers and find new stories; the Missourian’s outreach team, earlier in the year, held “community pitch meetings” via Facebook Live, where commenters could watch a video feed from the newsroom and use the comments section to pitch story ideas to reporters. The two video streams drew about 2,000 views between them.
And Columbia’s still a pretty good town in which to do journalism. We’re the biggest city in Mid-Missouri, we’re the seat of our county, we’re home to the biggest university in the state. There’s no shortage of stories to cover or interesting people to meet. Nor is there any shortage of ways to share stories: anybody with a Facebook account can write an article about something they saw or thought about that day and share it with hundreds of other people in their community. Anybody can blog and share it on Twitter.
Who’s breaking news in Columbia? Anybody who wants to, really. And if you want to get some news in the paper or on the radio or on TV, you can get in touch with pretty much any reporter you want almost instantly. And there are a lot of talented reporters to choose from, student and otherwise.
But the thing about good journalism is that when you’re missing it, you don’t really know you’re missing it. If someone’s incredible life story doesn’t get covered, you don’t know about it. If someone in power gets away with something they probably shouldn’t get away with, you don’t know about it.
If Columbia — the supposed town with the most journalists per capita that you’ll find anywhere — is going to continue to have a healthy local press, a lot of that will depend on the community’s active participation. How many people subscribe. How many people tune in. How many people donate. How many people click. How many people share.
“Personally, I try to talk up the Missourian a lot more than I used to,” Swafford says. “If I stop at McNally’s for a couple beers after work, it used to be that the last thing I wanted to talk about was work. But now I kind of make a point about it, to make sure people know what we’re up to.”