Opinion: Good news for Alaska journalism

By Rich Moniak

A new “independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government” was launched last week. It’s an “affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers.”

That’s how the Alaska Beacon described itself.

Suzzanne Downing, the editor of Must Read Alaska, called it “fake-neutral news … funded by philanthropic interests on a mission to reshape the political narrative for specific political agendas.” Or more bluntly as her headline read four weeks ago, it’ll be “a front for left-wing propaganda.”

It’s one thing when the pot calls the kettle black. But doing it long before the Beacon published its first story seems like a preemptive warning to her readers not to trust the Beacon’s reporting.

That said, Downing does make a legitimate case that States Newsroom isn’t politically neutral. For instance, “Reproductive Rights” is one of its trending news tabs. They’re covering national news stories related to the leaked and pending ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that will overturn Roe vs. Wade. But in the commentary on those pages, you won’t find any writer defending the position of the court’s majority.

However, that’s the national umbrella website. The Beacon states its “editorial decisions” will be “made inside Alaska by Alaska journalists.”

Andrew Kitchenmen, who covered state government at KTOO for six years, is the Editor-in-Chief. On launch day, he wrote the Beacon “aims to serve as a watchdog, looking out for how public dollars are being spent and public needs are being met.”

That‘s the most vital function of a free press. Sure, its reporters and editorial staff often seem unfriendly to those in power. But only monarchies, authoritarians and dictators would seek to censor or control what they publish.

Although that’s never happened in America, our free press is struggling to survive. The loss of advertising revenue over the past two decades has left far fewer reporters covering government at the state and local levels.

The Beacon adds four experienced political reporters to the pool. It’s also allowing existing news organizations to republish their stories and photographs free of charge. The story about legislation to reform the state’s alcohol laws that was published in the Empire on Tuesday came from the Beacon.

Empire editor Ben Hohenstatt indicated he’s interested in the in-depth analyses of policies and legislation the Beacon can provide because he doesn’t have enough staff reporters to offer that to Empire subscribers.

Across the spectrum of journalism, policy analysis sits somewhere between reporting on the government’s daily activities and political commentary. Producing those articles without some bias leaking into them will be difficult.

The commentary Kitchenmen hopes to provide can mitigate that. He’s “seeking fresh, fact-based views that will advance policy debates in the public interest.” That’s an invitation for others to challenge his writer’s assumptions and conclusions. It should also lead to a good balance between liberal and conservative perspectives.

News reporting will still be the Beacon’s top priority. And someone like Downing should appreciate that their goal is to provide Alaskans with more of it. After all, she had Hohenstatt’s job back in the day when the old Empire building was fully occupied.

He’s not expecting to ever have as big a staff as she did. But he is having discussions with a philanthropic funding source to add to a reporter. The mission of the Sacramento, California, based Journalism Funding Partners is to “Increase the depth, diversity and sustainability of local journalism.”

It’s likely Downing will find their board and priorities to be infected by a liberal bias too.

But that shouldn’t matter. She should still be encouraging her readers to seek out multiple perspectives on everything, especially topics that are controversial. Because the truth is the intelligence potential of both liberals and conservatives is diminished by confining our diet of news and commentary to outlets which confirm our individual biases.

To be a “well informed citizenry,” which Thomas Jefferson believed “is the best defense against tyranny,” we need to ability to get more in-depth news about our government’s decision making. That means having more professional reporters covering it every day.

We can thank the Beacon for trying to lead us in that direction.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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