Behind every story lies another story. That was proven again recently as the Transcript-Bulletin was named the best newspaper in the state in our circulation class by the Utah Press Association. The articles and photos that helped us win that contest stood on their own in the eyes of judges — but for journalists there’s almost always a story behind the story.
One award that was personally gratifying to me was the UPA’s Community Service Award. We won for our ongoing coverage of child sexual abuse in Tooele County — a package that included court reporting, analysis of long-term trends, editorials and explanations of editorial policy to readers. Our work has been cited by Tooele Children’s Justice Center administrators as being a catalyst in making more child victims and their guardians feel comfortable in coming forward to report abuse.
Much of the work that won us this award was done by staff writer Jamie Belnap, who covers crime and courts. To do her job, Jamie has to hear the brutal details of violent crimes again and again. She is also frequently castigated by angry readers protesting the exposure she brings to the accused — usually a friend or relative believed to be innocent.
During the course of our reporting on child sexual abuse last year, both Jamie and I were blasted by some readers opposed to our policy of identifying incest cases as such. We also took criticism from a few readers who preferred us not to report on any “negative” news. In the end, however, the newspaper remains committed to shining the brightest light possible on all child sexual abuse crimes — a stance I believe helped to win us the Community Service Award.
Another UPA award we were proud to take home was Best Editorial — which also has a story behind it. Last May, we published an editorial criticizing county commissioners for preparing to borrow $3 million to finance a new convention center and rodeo arena at Deseret Peak Complex even as the nation was plunging into recession. We questioned not only commissioners’ timing, but whether a convention center so close to Salt Lake City would be viable, and whether the county had the wherewithal to manage such a facility given the specialized nature of the meetings industry.
After the editorial was published, the newspaper was criticized by some quarters of county government for being anti-economic development. In my mind, however, we had performed one of the most vital functions a newspaper can take on: questioning how government is borrowing and spending in taxpayers’ names. (Weeks after the editorial appeared, commissioners downsized the project, cutting out the rodeo arena and trimming the convention center price tag to $2.3 million.)
Which brings me to the big story behind all the stories we do at the Transcript-Bulletin. People hear so much about the demise of newspapers these days, but can you imagine what we’d really miss out on in a world without local newspapers? Would any other media cover our schools, city councils, businesses or high school sports? Who would question local government spending? Who would tell the smallest victims’ stories, pay attention long enough to see what trends those stories add up to, and plumb the community for solutions to the problem?
If you think TV news, the Salt Lake City dailies, an individual blog or Twitter updates are providing this coverage of Tooele County, I invite you to Google the two issues mentioned above. Compare the results you get with a similar search on our Web site at www.tooeletranscript.com.
Fortunately, the outlook for community papers remains brighter than at many large metro dailies. Yes, the recession is affecting us just as it’s affecting most businesses right now. But more people are also reading the Transcript than ever before. We have had no significant decrease in print subscribers over the past decade, while our Web site now accumulates roughly 200,000 page views from 30,000 unique visitors every month.
The challenge for all newspapers these days is making enough money off of electronic content to support an editorial department. Historically, newspapers have never given away their content for free, but in recent years that’s exactly what many have done — to their financial detriment. We don’t intend to follow that path.
Beginning next week, only approximately 10 percent of our print content will be available on our Web site for free. A full digital edition of the paper, plus searchable archives, will be available by purchasing an online subscription for as low as $15 a month. This digital edition will include all the content in the print edition — something we have not offered before — delivered two hours before the print edition.
Selling online subscriptions allows us to continue gathering the stories that serve our community. After all, behind all those stories lies another big story: Newspapers still have a powerful role to play in keeping people informed.