In just a little over a year, Nebraska’s media landscape has expanded to uncover and shed light on more undercovered stories with the addition of two new publications.
The Flatwater Free Press, which published its first stories on Sept. 3, 2021, preceded the launch of the Nebraska Examiner four months later on Jan. 25, 2022. Both have counteracted a more-than-decades-long decrease in newsroom employment and have challenged Nebraska journalists.
“I think our journalism has leveled up as a state,” said Matt Wynn, the executive director of Nebraska Journalism Trust, the organization that launched and funds Flatwater Free Press.
Cate Folsom, the editor-in-chief of the Nebraska Examiner, the 26th organization under the nonprofit umbrella of States Newsroom, said the decrease in employment newsrooms have seen is a huge worry.
“If you’re losing newsroom employees, you’re losing news,” Folsom said. “There’s only so much one person can do in their job, and with fewer people, you have less news by definition.”
She said democracy and journalism go hand-in-glove because a successful democracy requires people to know what government entities are doing.
“Journalism plays that role,” Folsom said. “It’s why they call it the fourth estate.”
Folsom said she’s noticed more government reporting since their launch, which has challenged other organizations to step up. Both the Nebraska Examiner and Flatwater Free Press provide an alternative, an addition to news and information to a landscape that might otherwise not have been reported.
Wynn added that democracy is based on the governed knowing what the governing are doing, with journalists stepping in to smooth out those distinctions. He said some have become a bit too much of a bullhorn for the governing, which must be pushed back on.
“Journalism is at its best representing the unwashed masses and speaking truth to power and just explaining what our collective organizations are doing,” Wynn said.
College of Journalism and Mass Communications Dean Shari Veil at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln echoed those sentiments, pointing to the college’s mission to “do from day one” and root experiences “in hard work, collaborative problem-solving and the ethical pursuit of truth to uphold democracy.”
The Nebraska Examiner and Flatwater Free Press are both covering stories no one else is and spending the time to dig in where needed.
“It’s really important for our students to see that passion and that drive for covering news that needs to be read,” Veil said.
While journalism is essential to democracy, Veil said, it’s also important to know journalism is to blame for some of the lack of trust in media.
“It’s not surprising when we’ve lost so many news organizations throughout the middle of the country,” Veil said. “We have our national news coverage coming on the coasts and they are hiring journalists from the coast, and that doesn’t represent the Heartland in the middle of America.”
When people don’t feel represented, they may stop listening to a particular news source and go where they feel represented, which Veil said has contributed to the distrust.
Folsom added people on various sides of the political spectrum have completely lost trust in government and each other in journalism, which is disturbing.
“I feel like we really as a nation need to work our way through this, and I have no idea what the answer is,” Folsom said. “I mean, as a journalist, a little bit I feel that I play is to really strive to have well-balanced reporting and be a news outlet that people do feel they can trust.”
Readership has grown since January and people are relying on information, and Folsom said the Nebraska Examiner will, under her watch, do all it can to provide a fair and balanced report that includes all points of view.
“I hope it’s here to stay, and I hope that it will be able to make a difference in the news product that’s available and we can shine a light on things that people need to know about,” Folsom said.
Wynn said the Flatwater Free Press is purposely trying to be where others are not, including small town watchdog pieces just as much as statewide agency angles. Government can be boring and in the weeds, and people get more excited with scandal, but Wynn said it’s about getting to the middle, in the gray and finding the nuance.
“When no one is doing the job they’re put there to do, when people are shooing their duties, that’s where journalism thrives,” Wynn said.