LAW DAY: News Ecosystem Includes Many Different Outlets

A variety of Omaha area newspapers, magazines and news outlets are displayed, including NOISE, The Omaha World-Herald, The Reader, The Gretna Guide & News, The Bellevue Leader, The Douglas County Post-Gazette, Omaha Magazine, B2B Magazine and The Nebraska Lawyer, the official publication of the Nebraska State Bar Association. (Molly Ashford/Daily Record)
Molly Ashford
The Daily Record

Since February, Omaha nonprofit news organization NOISE has reported on the expanding story of Nebraska’s contract with the financially troubled child welfare organization Saint Francis Ministries.

On March 31, NOISE reporter and interim Managing Editor Emily Chen-Newton went to the capitol building to attend a press conference by Gov. Pete Ricketts after multiple emails regarding the contract went unanswered.

The governor’s communications director, Taylor Gage, refused her entry and refused to answer any of her questions about credentialing. 

NOISE was officially barred from attending press conferences and asking questions of the governor shortly after. Gage told The Omaha World-Herald that NOISE would not be credentialed because of the organization’s name and “how they position themselves.”

The governor’s refusal to credential NOISE — which stands for North Omaha Information Support Everyone — has been widely criticized as a glaring First Amendment violation by other media outlets, activists and legislators.

“A political decision to restrict access to government officials in fact abridges the freedom of the organizations barred,” according to a joint editorial published by The World Herald and The Lincoln Journal Star, which also recently appeared in The Daily Record.

It was never the goal of NOISE’s editors or staff to find themselves in the spotlight, but their plight to be recognized as a legitimate news media outlet has spurred dialogue about the vital role that alternative and niche publications play in a city as complex as Omaha.

“We never intended to be the story,” said Myles Davis, the vice president and digital media strategist at NOISE. “We really just wanted to get the truth behind what was going on with Saint Francis, because it disproportionately affects many, many children in North Omaha.”

Given Omaha’s long history of redlining and racial segregation, there is a need for outlets that cater to North Omaha and other populations within the greater community. Traditional media has historically ignored issues facing communities that would most benefit from robust coverage.

Omaha’s Jewish community is served by the Jewish Press, which has operated since 1920. For the Latino community, El Perico is Omaha’s only newspaper and digital platform published in both Spanish and English. Mundo Latino is a friendly competitor, offering a full-Spanish platform serving Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.

The iconic Omaha Star was founded in 1938 by Mildred Brown and has served North Omaha as the city’s only Black-owned print newspaper. Despite changes in leadership and an 83-year history, the monthly paper has never missed an issue.

NOISE emerged in 2018 on the heels of The Star, establishing a digital platform to serve North Omaha in the way that The Star has in print for nearly a century. 

“Traditional media shares things that affect everyone and broader issues,” Davis said. “NOISE really gets to the truth on things that matter to our community — the things that really affect their lives. I think that creates a trust factor that sets us apart from other media outlets in the city.”

Randy Essex, executive editor of The World Herald, thinks that the expanding media landscape is a win-win situation. He knows that his newspaper will survive, and he understands the role of other publications to fill gaps in coverage.

“The internet has kind of democratized the First Amendment,” Essex said. “It’s provided access to talk to a range of interests and individuals. I don’t find that to be threatening in any way — the more information that’s out there, the better.”

The World-Herald, which along with the Journal Star and several other regional papers is owned by Lee Enterprises, has its own role to play in the media landscape, including investing in accountability projects that require an extensive commitment of resources.

Marc Chase, Lee Enterprises’ Midwest regional editor, wrote in a World-Herald column last Sunday that the company’s 27 newsrooms throughout Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota would be pooling their resources for new, in-depth reporting projects in the coming months.

“In short, our ability to rally resources, across communities and Midwestern state lines, is creating a faster way of providing a rich scope for our readers than our industry has ever before brought to bear,” Chase said.

Essex points out that niche publications have been around for even longer than The World-Herald, starting with the first farming and military publications in the early 1800s. These papers have evolved since to serve modern-day communities in Omaha.

The Daily Record is one such publication. Its roots date back to 1886, and it continues to serve the community’s legal industry as well as acting as the official newspaper of record for several local governments, including the City of Omaha and Douglas County.

“We’re proud of the role that we play alongside other media outlets in the metropolitan area,” Daily Record Managing Editor Scott Stewart said. “The metro area has a much larger news ecosystem than many people realize. There are several weekly community newspapers, specialty outlets, TV and radio outlets, magazines and citizen journalists on social media — and what brings us together is seeking truth and reporting it.”

Omaha’s alternative press has seen several entries in recent years, but The Reader has survived as an arts and entertainment monthly paper that has operated in some form or another since the early 1990s. It is operated by parent company Pioneer Media.

Pioneer Media Publisher John Heaston embodies Omaha’s alternative media. He said he believes that the changing media landscape lends itself to more innovative journalism.

“Journalists used to be gatekeepers for information — we gathered all the information and then told our readership what we think is important for them to know,” Heaston said.

The internet has changed the relationship that journalists and outlets have with news consumers.

“The question becomes: Can we find a role kind of as a referee or a moderator where we can keep our independence, do our reporting, but also offer voices from the community as to facilitate a more robust conversation about the future?” Heaston asked.

Perhaps the greatest struggle for alternative media outlets is funding, Heaston said. Traditional print advertising and paper sales alone don’t pay the bills.

Publications such as NOISE and The Star have adopted a nonprofit model. NOISE is sustained by grants from the American Journalism Project and the Sherwood, Weitz and Hitchcock Family Foundations and others, as well as individual donations.

The Reader took a different and highly effective approach. Built into Pioneer Publishing is Pioneer Media, a digital marketing agency offering search engine optimization, website design, online management and other services to local businesses. Most of Pioneer’s revenue comes from this agency.

“When 2008 hit, the economy was going off a cliff and nobody wanted to advertise,” Heaston said. “When we talked with our advertisers and asked them what they were struggling with in marketing or advertising, almost every company was talking about trying to figure out Google and Facebook.”

Besides the innovative funding stream, Heaston has a few ideas to revitalize Omaha’s media. He mentions innovative programs like Mississippi’s Youth Media Project, an initiative which trains diverse groups of youth to report on issues facing their communities, creating a new generation of grassroots journalists.

Grassroots, community-based journalism has experienced a massive uptick in the 21st century, giving way for a new wave of freelancers and citizen journalists to shape the field.

Since protests first began in May 2020, freelance journalist and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate student Melanie Buer has taken it upon herself to cover nearly every demonstration.

Buer tweets from the protests and sometimes livestreams the events and is a frequent contributor to NOISE, writing on issues of policing and protest.

“There’s quite a few folks out there doing protest coverage, but it seems to be that the independent journalists are the ones who stick around and provide coverage when the larger news networks move on,” Buer said. “It’s important to get a full picture of what’s going on, and often times independent journalists have the ability to do that and to really stick with an assignment long enough to get the full story and build trust with the community.”

It remains unclear if NOISE will be credentialed by the Governor’s Office or if there will be a larger fallout from the standoff.

After the incident, Ricketts’ office released a new credentialing application for all media outlets, in which the office claims the right to analyze whether an applicant is a “bona fide journalist of repute.”

The Nebraska Press Association has encouraged its members, which include The Daily Record, to not complete the application. Media of Nebraska, which also represents the state’s broadcasters, has sent a letter critical of the new credentialing procedure.

The ACLU of Nebraska also has spoken out on social media against the policy.

“When any media is threatened or being treated differently, we need to stand up for each other,” Essex said. “We need to stand up for the First Amendment.”

But regardless of what happens, NOISE and other outlets in Omaha know one thing for sure: Their mission will not change.

“This is much bigger and more important than us,” Davis said of the credentialing dispute. “After this last couple of weeks, I really don’t know how big or influential NOISE will become. The only thing I know for sure in our future is that we are committed to our mission and providing information necessary to our community.”


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