The Yakima Valley is one of four communities nationwide that will be part of a Microsoft pilot program to preserve local newsrooms.
The project will support journalism in Yakima; Fresno, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; and Jackson, Miss. In addition to a year of funding, newsrooms in each community will receive technology support, training and legal support for an undefined amount of time.
Mary Snapp, Microsoft’s vice president of strategic initiatives, said the effort builds on previous Microsoft media projects and aims to prevent information deserts.
“As we started to really delve into this area and started talking about trust, we realized that people trust their local news more than they trust national news, more than they trust TV, more than they trust their government,” Snapp said.
Nationwide, newsroom employment has dropped by half and 2,100 newsrooms have closed in the past 15 years, according to a news release by Microsoft announcing the new initiative. The COVID-19 pandemic has created extra stress, with 11,000 newsroom jobs cut since January in the U.S.
“So we knew that (local media) was really an important place for us to bolster support,” Snapp said.
The communities were selected for a variety of reasons, Snapp said.
In Yakima, for instance, there are a variety of news platforms throughout the community. She said organizations like the Yakima Herald-Republic were also already on their way toward becoming digitally focused. Each community was also close to a university or post-secondary program in journalism, she said, pointing to Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication.
The Yakima Herald-Republic, El Sol de Yakima, Radio KDNA, KIMA TV, Central Washington University and Washington State University have been part of conversations about the project.
The Yakima Herald-Republic’s managing editor, Greg Halling, was one of Microsoft’s early contacts in the community. He helped introduce the organization to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, Snapp said.
An undisclosed amount of funds to support the journalism work in each community will be funneled through a community foundation and earmarked to support local news platforms, Snapp said. In Yakima’s case, the Yakima Valley Community Foundation will be charged with determining where to direct funds, she said.
Snapp added that she hoped to see the foundations in each community involved source additional funding to support “independent fact-based news” in their communities. In Fresno, she said, there is an existing community fund to support storytelling, which is being used as a model in the other three communities.
Additionally, Microsoft plans to provide support in technology and legal areas.
In terms of technology, Snapp said she sees this as an opportunity for newsrooms to move to up-to-date technology like cloud storage or platforms like Office 365, provided at “a deeply discounted rate.” She said the cloud could be used for more secure and advanced data analysis and visualization in media projects, for example. The project also will include training opportunities so that journalists know how to most effectively use such tools.
Microsoft also collaborating with Seattle-based law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, which has significant experience in First Amendment rights, to provide pro-bono legal support to communities in Washington and California. She said this might include pre-publication review of materials, support in public records requests at the state and federal level or help responding to subpoenas. Roughly 85 Microsoft lawyers have signed up for training to prepare to provide such legal support.
While the pilot project was announced Wednesday morning, Snapp said metrics for what should be learned or achieved during the program are yet to be outlined. She said she hoped that newsrooms and the Microsoft pilot would learn by doing. In six to eight months, she said, she said goals and metrics for growth might be established.
Halling of the Yakima Herald-Republic said the pilot program would “give us tools and capabilities that we don’t possess” to help local media extend its depth and reach.
He pointed to the potential to apply artificial intelligence to reporting to identify trends in coverage such as cases of missing and murdered indigenous women that might otherwise be overlooked; translation software to better communicate with and represent the community in reporting; and software to better present data in stories to readers.
“It’s not just the newsroom that’s being transformed potentially here,” he said. “It’s also got the potential to transform the community. Because the better we are at storytelling (and) the better we are at reporting, the better the community understands the challenges it faces and the better a community can form responses to those challenges.”
Snapp said she will be excited to see the work of newsrooms in each community shared more widely through Microsoft’s news networks, such as Microsoft News, MSN and Bing. She said she hoped the initiative would inspire similar efforts by other organizations.