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Guest column

Raid is just one challenge facing news media

Kansas Reflector opinion editor

Kansas newspapers grabbed the international spotlight last summer with the police raid on the Marion County Record newspaper. While that story is still rumbling along, fresh concerns have emerged.

Kansas public television saw its funding threatened this month after a state senator took offense, and news outlets across the country have faced challenging economic and political headwinds.

After such high-profile conflicts, it seems like an opportune time to check in on the state of Kansas journalism and free speech.

We found two experts on the subject: Emily Bradbury, the executive director of the Kansas Press Association, and Max Kautsch, a media lawyer from Lawrence. Both have contributed to Kansas Reflector before as columnists and sources.

Their verdict? The state of journalism in the Sunflower State is strong. On the other hand, public officials could stand to brush up on some First Amendment basics.

Kautsch took on the subject while talking about State Senator Caryn Tyson’s recent attempt to slash the state’s entire public TV budget because of her outrage over the documentary “No Place Like Home: The Struggle Against Hate in Kansas.”

“One of the problems is — it’s just been trickling down from the national discourse — which is a misunderstanding about what the First Amendment is,” he told me. “The extent to which I think that some people believe the First Amendment amounts to a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Also, the extent to which some people think that the First Amendment doesn’t exist, and then speech can just be censored because it is disagreed with.... Opinions about governmental matters, you know, some opinions are going to be unfavorable.”

Tyson’s move to cut all the half-million dollars in funding was rejected by the Senate commerce committee, which trimmed $50,000 instead. The Senate ways and means committee reinstated that funding last week.

Bradbury offered a high-level overview of industry challenges, along with her trademark optimism and determination.

“Our industry is in a state of transition, right? We’ve got … online, internet, social media platforms that essentially steal the content without paying our members for that,” she said. “It’s been a real struggle, I mean, that part is really, really tough.

“And then when you combine that with a 36% increase in postal rates over the last three years, that is a lot. And the service has declined with those postal rates.

“So, we’ve got papers out there that are struggling and having to raise subscription prices, not because they want to make more money, but because they have to pay the post office to deliver their product.

“But our readership is high — 86% of Kansans look at a paper, whether online or in their hands.”

Bradbury hits on a point that I emphasize time and again to Kansas audiences. More people read the work I do today, that my colleagues do today, than ever before. Online dissemination of content, through websites and social media, means that news reaches an ever-expanding audience.

The challenge has seldom been readership. The challenge has been fiscal.

Bradbury told me that Kansas boasts 190 news outlets, both print and online. Every one of Kansas’s 105 counties has a newspaper, except for Elk County, which enjoys coverage from a neighboring news outlet.

Sobering tales of news deserts have drifted in from surrounding states, but at least for now the local industry has survived and thrived.

“We have been so lucky,” Bradbury said. “We don’t have a true news desert in Kansas. So, our communities and our papers are out there; they’re supporting each other. But there’s just a lot of external factors that are putting pressure on the industry.”

I told Bradbury and Kautsch that based solely on the correspondence that I receive, Kansans remain fascinated by the police raid in Marion. They want to know what has happened with the investigation.

Unfortunately, we know little besides the filing of a recent lawsuit and word that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has become involved.

The raid happened Aug. 11, 2023. We’re still waiting to know the actual outcome.

“Law enforcement has every right — and the public expectation — to conduct an investigation and to do whatever is necessary to establish probable cause and to gather evidence to formulate charges,” said Kautsch, who also serves as president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government. “And purportedly that’s what’s happening.

“However, it seems to me that at this point, it’s been several months. Why hasn’t there an announcement been made about charges? Who is being charged? Or who is being investigated, and who might be charged? …

“It’s not even clear exactly who is being investigated.”

If you recall, a Record reporter was accused of breaking the law while reporting a story. Legal experts have since said what she did was entirely legitimate, but the investigation remains open.

Kautsch suggests that delay has burdened Kansas journalists.

“Until that announcement is made, I just don’t know how a journalist can’t have some level of a chilling effect on what they do,” he said.

Our conversation, recorded Thursday, covered so much ground.

Bradbury and Kautsch have been tracking legislation at the Statehouse, and they tell us what bills interest and concern them. We also talk about the practical concerns of keeping a free and fair press vibrant for generations to come.

The full podcast, including commentary on places like the City of Hillsboro using charter ordinances to declare its website to be its official newspaper, is available at https://soundcloud.com/kansas-reflector-podcast.

Last modified Feb. 21, 2024

 

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