Sign of the times: A local newsroom aims to build trust

Downtown Walla Walla, WA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

It stung the first time Sheila Hagar saw the billboard. It was late winter, and she and her husband were passing through the outskirts of Dayton, a town 30 miles northeast of Walla Walla, Washington. The billboard, the size an average sheet of plywood, caught her eye. The words stenciled on it, “HEY CROOKED NEWS MEDIA STOP LYING TO US,” felt like a personal attack. Hagar has been a reporter at The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin for 13 years.

“I think it’s really easy for people to not understand when you put up a sign like that, and maybe you’re thinking about one newspaper or one reporter, how that makes everyone in the industry suffer,” she says. “There’s no question that its target is the local newspapers.”

The billboard sits 30 miles from the city of Walla Walla, WA. (Photo credit: Marilyn Hawkins)

Before November’s election, the space was occupied by words in support of Donald Trump. He won Walla Walla County, where Walla Walla is its largest city, with 54 percent of the vote (Hillary Clinton got 38 percent). “I worry about my reporters,” says Brian Hunt, editor and publisher of the Union-Bulletin. “You literally have to drive by someone who thinks you’re the enemy.”

Pre-election, the daily newspaper would receive the occasional complaint. “You might disagree with media over this or that, but it didn’t mean that you wrote it off permanently,” Hagar says. The attacks were less fervent and less apparent. Now, for a certain portion of the population, there’s a complete dismissal of all media, from The New York Times to the Union-Bulletin. Trump’s anti-media rhetoric has permeated community journalism.

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Rural papers, like the Union-Bulletin, are feeling the effects of his attacks. “I cried after the election when things were being said about the media,” Hagar says. Her husband would tell her things like, “They’re not talking about you,” but it didn’t help. “That stuff is so toxic,” she says. “It’s going to drip down on us.” She was right. But as readers’ criticism escalated post-election, the team at the Union-Bulletin has been working to counteract Trump’s narrative by directly engaging with readers online and offline.

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Behind his desk, Brian Hunt has a file rack with a folder labeled “Reader Complaints.” He jokes, “It’s fatter than it used to be.” The folder contains 30 or so hand-written notes, renewal notices, and phone messages left on scraps of paper. He reads one: “If it weren’t for my wife, I wouldn’t renew my subscription to your obviously liberal newspaper.” The Union-Bulletin is owned by The Seattle Times, which, Hunt says, makes the paper an easy target. Washington is a conservative state with an exceedingly liberal major city, Seattle. The paper’s connection to the Times can be a point of contention for some readers.

“You need to stop our subscription, you crazy liberal Seattle person,” reads Hunt from another complaint.

Whenever the paper receives a complaint, it goes straight to Hunt. He’s been the publisher and editor of the Union-Bulletin for the last two years. Reader complaints are a staple of any news organization, including the Union-Bulletin, but there’s been an uptick since November. Hunt personally follows up on every complaint. “They don’t go into folder until I feel like I’ve done everything to solve it,” he says.

The complaints vary, but they’re overwhelmingly in defense of Trump. Sometimes those complaints translate into subscription cancellations. The Union-Bulletin’s market is roughly 60,000 people, and its circulation is about 10,000. The paper covers the whole Walla Walla Valley, from the southeastern corner of Washington and extends partly into northeastern Oregon. While major newspapers like The New York Times and online outfits like ProPublica saw a spike in subscriptions post-election, that wasn’t the case for the Union-Bulletin. It lost 30 subscriptions, most of them in January and February following the inauguration. Hunt says it’s a small number, but emblematic of a change in culture.

“When coverage gets personal, when people think we’re attacking Trump, that’s when we get calls,” Hunt says.

One of those calls involved a political cartoon. In the frame, a Twitter bird flies over Trump and then poops on his head. “It raised giant amounts of ire among Trump supporters because they thought we were disrespectful,” Hunt says about the syndicated comic. For eight years, the paper published humorous, often critical, cartoons featuring Barack Obama. They never got a single complaint. Now they get a call whenever the publish one with Trump. The paper also lost a subscriber because it didn’t cover Pizzagate, the debunked conspiracy theory that emerged during the 2016 election. “You must hate Trump because you’re not talking about this,” Hunt recalls a former reader telling him.

Strong communities support strong newspapers, and strong newspaper support strong communities.

No matter the complaint, Hunt reaches out. He’ll probe the reader to understand what exactly is upsetting them. Was it a particular story? A cartoon? An editorial? Nine out of 10 times, the response is vague. They’ll say things like “Everything” or “You know what I’m talking about.” Other than the cartoons, people rarely tell him, “Oh, that story you did about this.”

Though often abstract, the complaints are a reminder that the Union-Bulletin does rely on its audience. It’s a small paper in a small market; it’s important to address these issues head-on. “We need paying readers more than we ever needed them before,” Hunt says. And so his approach post-election has been one defined by respect, patience, and engagement. “My mom used to say, ‘You get more flies with honey than vinegar,’” he says. It’s something he does in the office with reader complaints, but also around the community.

“Strong communities support strong newspapers, and strong newspaper support strong communities,” Hunt says.

In April, a local librarian asked Brian Hunt for a favor. She wanted him to speak about “fake news” at the Walla Walla Public Library. “I was reluctant,” he says. “I had to be talked into it.” The library patrons, many of whom subscribe to the Union-Bulletin, were supportive. Forty of them gathered as Hunt explained the history of journalism in the United States, dating back to its partisan roots.

As the event came to a close, one attendee asked Hunt, “When are you running this in the paper?” It wasn’t the initial plan, but he realized he could reach more people. Soon after, an amended version appeared as a column in the Union-Bulletin called “Community Journalism in the era of fake news.” Both the speech and the subsequent article point to the primary way the newspaper is addressing “fake news.” They’re doing it through conversation.

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“With some of those conversations, you just hold the phone three feet from your head and you’re going to get screamed at,” he says. “But on those ones about a particular story, it’s interesting to me, in the midst of all the screaming, how similar we all are.”

My mom used to say, ‘You get more flies with honey than vinegar. It’s something he does in the office with reader complaints, but also around the community.

Despite the trickle-down Trump rhetoric, Americans still prefer getting their news from a local newspaper, according to a recent survey from the National Newspaper Association. One-third of respondents choose the newspaper over cable or local television; 30 percent said they preferred the latter. The internet, social media, and radio lagged behind, with 11 percent, 5 percent, and 5 percent, respectively.

Christina Smith, an assistant professor at Georgia College and State University, wrote her 2015 dissertation on the role of small-town newspapers in rural communities. At the time, Trump had just launched his presidential campaign. It was a time before “alternative facts” and “fake news” entered the zeitgeist, before late-night Twitter tirades became the norm, and before White House press briefings became useless.

Smith’s suggestions mirror how the Union-Bulletin has been responding to its community’s accusations of bias or “fake news.” Newsrooms have to fight against the narrative without being combative, she says: “In rural journalism, you just walk in and the publisher is right there. The contact is really direct.” For small-town community journalists, personal and social identity influence how they do their jobs. The newspaper doesn’t just report on the community, but is part of it. Readers are the same people in your rotary club, church groups, or community board.

“It’s all about standing up for journalism and defending what we do,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism. he says. Cross lauds Hunt for explaining, in a clear and respectful manner, the ins and outs of journalism. It’s something more rural newspapers need to do better, Cross says.

Since the column, Hunt says they’ve received fewer complaints, though he can’t make a direct connection between the two: “I would like to think I help turned the tide a little bit, but I also think these things come and go a little bit.”

With some of those conversations, you just hold the phone three feet from your head and you’re going to get screamed at. But on those ones about a particular story, it’s interesting to me, in the midst of all the screaming, how similar we all are.

Sheila Hagar knows the Walla Walla Valley like the back of her hand. Before she was a full-time reporter at the paper, she penned a recurring column in it. She knows the readers, and the readers know her. When she’s off the clock, she follows the community closely on social media. It’s her way of seeing what readers (and neighbors) really think about the newspaper’s coverage. She scrolls her Facebook feed to understand readers’ thoughts on issues like homelessness or how they’re reacting to a certain story.

“After the election, we had to prove ourselves over and over for a while,” she says. “Like I’m still the same reporter.”

Hagar still drives past the billboard often. She’s not used to it and doesn’t want to be. Some days, she thinks about stopping by the farm with the billboard, to chat up the resident who put it up, talk about it over coffee. Even if he’s not receptive, she has reason to be hopeful. Beyond politics, the people accusing her and the Union-Bulletin of “fake news” are the same people she’s always cared about: neighbors, sources, family members.

“I have to remember that we’ve got a sunburn. A red angry covering over us,” she says. “It’s going to fade and heal.”

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.