Although we don’t write news stories to please elected officials, oftentimes they like them. That’s fine by me. We try to do a good job of letting our readers know what’s going on with local government, pointing out the good things as well as the trouble spots.
It’s also fine by me when these officials share a link to our story on their social media. But recently, a local official went a step too far and cut and pasted our entire story onto Facebook.
On one level, it was flattering that the official thought that our story was well-done and important. But I felt the need to reach out, so I posted a note on the page where the story had been pasted:
“Thanks for reading, but cutting and pasting this copyrighted article undermines our efforts to get folks to pay for news. We really need the community to support local journalism or else we will not be able to stay in business.”
It still amazes me that smart people think of journalism as some sort of public good, provided free for everyone to share. I think it’s because good journalism serves the public interest, just like a public library or the fire department. People expect civic assets to be free. But, of course, librarians and firefighters rely on taxpayers to pay their salaries. We rely on readers to pay ours. Without paying subscribers, our business will fail.
This particular elected official — whose name is not important to this column — is a smart, dedicated public servant who knows all of that, but had a momentary lapse. Here is the reply I received a short time after I left my comment:
“I pay for both your print edition and the electronic edition and assumed I could pass on a good story like this to my Facebook friends, many of whom live outside your circulation area and would never see such articles otherwise. I will delete this post if you wish but ask you to give guidance to folks like me who want to share an occasional Columbian article. I certainly want the Columbian to stay in business, since I have read it religiously since I was a kid.”
Here’s how I left the conversation: “I knew your heart was in the right place on this one, but just wanted to let you know that we would much prefer folks to share a few sentences of the story and then post the link. As you probably know, the first few articles on our site are free, so casual readers can still get the story, though we do ask frequent readers for their financial support. We really appreciate your subscription and readership; we literally can’t do it without dedicated community members like you.”
A chilling example
If you want a chilling example of what happens when the local newspaper collapses, look no further than Wapato, a Yakima Valley farm town of about 4,500. After a century of operation, the Wapato Independent was merged with the newspaper in Toppenish 20 years ago. By November 2017, when Juan Orozco was elected mayor, there apparently weren’t any journalists left to cover Wapato city government.
According to a lawsuit filed last month by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Orozco decided to create a cushy city administrator’s job at $95,000 per year, plus use of a new SUV. According to the contract Orozco crafted, the city administrator was entitled to the job for seven years, and if he was fired, would be paid out for all seven years, plus six months’ severance.
You can guess what happened next. At a special city council meeting, Mayor Orozco arranged to be named City Administrator Orozco, with all the pay and privileges.
There is a happy ending. After the state auditor discovered the contract, Orozco agreed to resign, forfeit his severance, and pay a $500 fine. But the city still faces Ferguson’s lawsuit and multiple other claims, not to mention a loss of trust.
What would have happened if the Wapato Independent were still alive and had a reporter who attended city council meetings? None of the above, I would wager. But it takes financial support from the community to employ that reporter. So that’s why we can’t give our stories away for free.