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How well-told stories become the casualty of media distrust

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A good newspaper journalist aspires to the level of craft of a journeyman carpenter or a professional musician — not the music composer or front man, but the sideman or studio player who can pick up any tune.

My grandparents worked in this job, chasing stories about murders and scandals in New York City in the 1920s. We began swapping war stories when I had my first job out of school, covering community meetings and high school sports for the weekly Homer News.

Nothing fundamental changes in such a basic human endeavor. A table is still a table and wood is still wood. Styles and details change, but as a cub reporter I learned to ask questions, take notes and tell stories, the same skills they had mastered decades earlier.

Thirty years into my career, words come as naturally as guitar chords to a player who has spent a life on a bandstand. Pleasure emerges from the human details that crystallize a tale, like a picker's sweet lick that sticks in your head long after the show.

Today, newspapers are dying. This craft that goes back generations — maybe it goes back to the hunts and campfires of our earliest ancestors — can no longer put out a product that consistently sells for what it costs to produce.

The audience of Alaska Dispatch News, like other outlets, has largely moved to the internet, where subscriptions can be harder to sell. Many readers now find their news through social media, not from curated home pages or broadsheets.

Society hasn't decided yet where to get credible, researched information about current events. Maybe we haven't decided if that is something we still want. Kids cranking out made-up stories on laptops have made bigger profits than organizations spending millions to gather news.

In this environment, President Trump has sought to create his own reality, calling information he doesn't like "fake news."

The situation feels disorienting to a career journalist, like being a carpenter who is told his solidly built house is worth no more than a cardboard box.

But the problem is deeper than the comments of President Trump. It is deeper than the impact of cable news propaganda that masquerades as news, or the grocery store tabloids that concoct scandals.

The problem is deeper than the media itself.

As op-ed columnist Bill Bishop reported earlier this month, Gallup polls across decades show Americans have lost faith in all of our institutions over the last 50 years. Only 20 percent of respondents reported high confidence in the news media but corporations, unions, government, schools and banks did little better.

These trends transcend generations and categories. We are losing the sinews that connect our culture. Fewer Americans go to church, join clubs and teams or participate in community affairs.

Fewer votes are cast in local Anchorage elections now than 25 years ago, when the population was 22 percent less.

Perhaps this change is too big even to call it a problem. Society is evolving into something new that we haven't lived in before. Today the trend looks like disintegration, but maybe we just can't see where it ends up.

I got to thinking about these issues when I was invited recently to speak on the topic of fake news to a lunch meeting of Anchorage East Rotary.

It's easy to feel intimidated by the public when you're a member of the news media, because so much negativity is directed against what we write every day. But that's online. When I showed up for the luncheon I was surrounded by friendly people, many of whom I had known for decades.

Before I spoke, the Rotarians shared their own news, each putting a few dollars in the hat for the privilege of bragging on their kids or kidding one another.

Someone reported the amazing statistics of the club's mobile food pantry, a converted beer truck that has been feeding low-income neighborhoods for years. (I hope to tell more about that in a future column.)

I told the group how we produce the news you read in ADN. I explained how I come up with the stories I tell — mostly from people like those in the audience, who send me emails or stop me in the grocery store — and how I gather the information for a column.

It's not hard to tell the difference between fake news and traditional reporting. Real news quotes sources. Errors are corrected publicly. The publication's identity and continuity establish a record worthy of trust.

At ADN, reporters' names are on articles and it's obvious from the text where they got their information. They can use anonymous sources only with good reason and special permission, which is rarely given.

Local journalists don't make much money — we never have — but it's a fascinating job with a lot of impact. Since the job is its own reward, reporters resist inappropriate interference. And it's easy to blow the whistle when that happens.

At ADN, publisher Alice Rogoff has no influence on how news is covered. She has never told me what to do. She hasn't even expressed an opinion about a column or suggested a topic.

The Rotarians are a polite bunch. If they thought I was lying, they wouldn't have said so. But from what I picked up afterward in conversation, I believe most do value the news we write. The only criticism I received was about the national news sources ADN publishes.

Our culture is created by each of us as we decide how to live our lives. Good acts are rewarded by personal pride and the influence they create on others to act positively too.

For my own part, all I know how to do is to keep finding stories and telling them as honestly as I can. I hope that's enough to earn your trust and mend some of the connections that hold us together.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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