“We are sitting on a college campus tonight and we have teachers who are teaching this next generation of journalists,” stated Stephanie Sigafoos, digital content producer at LehighValleyNews.com, on a panel of five other professional journalists in the Seegers Union Event Space facing an audience of community members and college students alike. “If you’re one of these kids going to Muhlenberg or Lehigh or Lafayette or any other college, and you know this is what you want to do… Don’t let what’s happening in this industry mislead you… When you’re in it, you’re in it for a reason.”
On Thursday, Sept. 15, Media and Communication Lecturer Sara Vigneri hosted an event sponsored by The Muhlenberg Weekly and the media and communication department called “Say Yes to a Free Press.”
After a screening of a documentary entitled “News Matters,” that tackles the reality of a career in today’s journalistic climate, a panel of journalists sat down to address questions, concerns and comments from students and community members. On the panel, there were five career journalists, Bob Orenstein, Christopher Baxter, Sigafoos, Donna Natosi and Nick Falsone, as well as our own editor-in-chief at The Muhlenberg Weekly, Cydney Wilson ‘23.
The documentary itself was centered around the aftermath of the purchase of The Denver Post by a hedge fund—the same hedge fund that bought Allentown’s newspaper, The Morning Call. The film focused on the lives of the journalists and the struggles they faced through a political, social and increasingly digital climate where news is seen as a business instead of a public service. This climate has impacted the livelihoods of journalists all around the country.
Audience members were encouraged to submit questions virtually to be asked by Vigneri.
“We, as an industry, have to be smarter. We have fewer resources; the days of competition are gone. It makes no sense to send three people to the same press conference when we could send one and have those two others doing more quality, in-depth work,” Executive Director and Founding Editor-in-Chief Christopher Baxter at Spotlight PA, explained upon being asked about the future of local news in Allentown. “It is now incumbent on us to prove our value to the community and to the public. And in doing that—that really has to guide what journalism is producing and who it’s really for. And if we do that, then we need to do events like this and let people know that what we are doing is really a true public service and it requires public support.”
“Journalism is a fundamental aspect of our democracy,” Baxter added. “We need to support journalism in the same way that we support the arts; the same way that we support cultural institutions, music… Can we get to what we had 20-25 years ago? Probably not. But we need to get somewhere. We need to be trying. It’s too urgent. It’s too important.”
Journalism functioning as a backbone to democracy becomes difficult to recognize in a world where the human attention span seems to be shortening. Vigneri, in her next question, quoted the documentary that said, “the average time spent on [online] pages is two minutes and often less.” It becomes easy for one to accept, with these statistics, that journalism is a fast-declining industry.
“If you produce compelling investigative journalism, compelling accountability journalism, deep, meaningful, reliable trusted voter guides…that number looks more like 17 minutes, 18 minutes,” responded Baxter. “So, if our number is two minutes, it’s not a problem with what the hell is up with the readership… The problem is we are clearly not providing something that’s worth spending more than two minutes on.”
The Director of Digital at LehighValleyNews.com, Donna Natozi, added that engagement comes from person-to-person connection. “If we are not in the community and learning what’s important to the community, there’s no way. If you’re not seeing the reporter’s face out there and connecting on a level where they’re relatable or reachable, that is the minimum we can do.”
“Face time establishes trust,” Sigafoos added. “I’m not going to get the same answers from a political leader, or a police officer, or anyone else I’m interviewing, if I’m doing it over the phone, or I’m doing it via text or I’m doing it via Zoom. You don’t establish yourself in the community by talking on your cell phone, you don’t gain people’s trust by texting. We need to be there.”
Vigneri also used the event to introduce the Allentown Voice, a student journalism lab covering the affordable housing crisis in Allentown. “Teaching journalism isn’t necessarily about training future journalists,” said Vigneri. “The Allentown Voice allows me to teach journalism as a way to increase civic engagement and help students connect to our community.” The Assistant Editor of the Allentown Voice, Alex Caban-Echevarria ‘23, commented, “Planning the event with Professor Vigneri over the summer was so special. Since it was our launch event, it culminated all the work our inaugural team of journalists did. It was important for us to share why local news matters and all that is happening right here in Allentown.”
“The Allentown Voice allows me to teach journalism as a way to increase civic engagement and help students connect to our community.”
Wilson added that, “It is so crucial that we begin instilling the value of journalism in students at a young age—especially in college—so that students continue to understand its importance and engage with the art of journalism, whether it be as a writer, editor, photographer or a reader.”
This rhetoric of creating good content and community engagement in order to increase interest seems ideal. However, as the documentary expressed, money, or the lack thereof, can become a huge issue when trying to run any newspaper.
“The money is not necessarily the problem…” Baxter said. “The collapse of the corporate model is also an opportunity for us to reinvent what news is and how it serves the public. And so when we talk about saving local news, I think we have to really think about what are the good parts that we want to save? And what are the bad parts that we want to leave behind?”
“At the end of the day” he adds, “if journalism is to be a core public service, a core aspect of our democracy… then it is much better in the hands of the people than it is in the hands or at the whims of an ad strategy. It’s time to bring journalism home and make it what we need it to be to be a stronger country.” Upon this comment, the audience began to applaud.
“The collapse of the corporate model is also an opportunity for us to reinvent what news is and how it serves the public. And so when we talk about saving local news, I think we have to really think about what are the good parts that we want to save?”
Hosting a panel of journalists to speak on their industry while creating an engagement event where local Lehigh Valley community members and Muhlenberg students alike were able to sit down and learn about engagement and the way local communities have worked together to continue to produce effective journalism was nothing less than inspiring.
“Get involved and stay involved,” Sigafoos concluded. “We need the passion in this room and the reason you guys showed up tonight.”