Last December I had the opportunity to join Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen, grower Joe Del Bosque and a reporter from a small weekly newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley in a panel discussion of news coverage of agriculture.
The luncheon panel was hosted by the California Press Foundation, an arm of the California News Publishers Association, as the final presentation in the organization’s annual two-day conference at San Francisco’s ornate Marine’s Memorial Club.
On our panel, the audience – which consisted largely of newspaper publishers and other executives – sought our opinions as to how they could regain the trust of rural readers they’d lost amid the circulation declines of recent years. That’s been a favorite topic of mine for a couple of decades, as anyone who used to work with me at daily newspapers can attest.
The foundation put on a top-notch event, and I was honored to receive the invitation. I know my fellow panelists were, too.
At the same time, the gathering had an eerie quality as a relic of the past, much like the 74-year-old hotel and museum that housed it. The group has been meeting for over 140 years, but it wouldn’t have been too far-fetched to wonder if they’ll make it to 150.
It moved to Marines’ Memorial from a larger venue several years ago, and in 2018 its attendees filled a banquet room. But in December that same room was less than half full, and the organizers put up curtain partitions to make it a little less cavernous. The average age in the room was about on par with that of farmers, except you didn’t get the impression that younger generations were waiting to take over when dad or mom retires.
There are lots of reasons why the newspaper industry has declined so precipitously over the last few decades, with the proliferation of online news sources (including social media) perhaps the biggest. But another big one, according to surveys, is loss of trust in media generally. In my view, many news outlets have willingly ceded the trust and loyalty of half the population, and the half they forfeited consists largely of rural folks.
How have they done this? By enabling a politicized newsroom culture that reinforces an urban-rural divide. As just one example, amid the coronavirus shutdowns, one major California newspaper used cell phone records to name and shame the rural counties where people weren’t staying at home. Though the reason was that many were working in agriculture – an essential business – the reporter took to social media to chide rural folks for not believing in science.
In San Francisco, I and others encouraged the publishers to cover ag and rural issues consistently, learn about the issues and develop relationships with people. I resisted the urge to repeat what a peach grower once told me when I asked if he had advice for others.
“Give it up,” he said, “and buy from me.”