Community Journalism Champion Scott Wilson Enters COM Hall of Fame

Over his 40 years in journalism, Scott Wilson (B.A., 1978 | M.A., 1986) has been a champion for independent media, open government, tough journalism, early adaption of digital media, and opening doors to young journalists. “I think every journalist should start here,” he says. “Working for a community paper means that you will be thrown into the process right away. You’ll experience total immersion in the field because you’ll be assigned two to three beats, work closely with senior staff, and write for multiple platforms. The challenge is that because you are truly up close and personal with members of the community, you damn well better do good journalism.”

Since 1989, Wilson and his wife Jennifer were co-owners, and then the sole owners, of the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader. “Good journalism has a deep and rapid impact on a community,” Wilson explains. “In Washington state, there are about 120 community newspapers, all of which are closely read and have a greater influence on what happens locally than any of the larger publications. Moreover, when a local story appears in a regional, state, or national publication, chances are that its point of origin was the local weekly. Community journalists may be casting a smaller net, but they have the potential to make a big difference.”

During his decades-long career, Wilson served in the roles of investigative reporter, editor, publisher, marketer, delivery boy and sidewalk sweeper. He won three dozen community media awards for journalism, photography, editorials, marketing and community service, and sustained the Leader as one of Washington’s best independent community media companies. “At the Leader, I was not only a ‘newspaper man,’ but also a small business owner,” Wilson says. “What I learned during that time was the importance of treating my staff like family. We tried to be as generous as we could, encouraged collaboration at every level, and as a result, everyone was very loyal to the Leader and the journalistic cause.”

Wilson graduated from the UW School of Communications with a B.A. in 1978, where he was editor of the UW Daily. “You have to remember that this was the Watergate era,” he says. “There was a driving energy on campus, a great deal of political activity; many people at the time were ready to topple governments and challenge the administration. As student journalists, none of us were backing away from the controversy, but it was really important to me that The Daily be respectful in how we operated. We had a good relationship with University leaders because I didn’t want The Daily to be used as a juvenile ‘gotcha’ toy. However, I take pride in the fact that media was, and still is, a true check to power.”

Wilson returned to the UW for the master’s program, advised by Professors Richard Kielbowicz and the legendary Bill Ames, and graduating in 1985. “I was fortunate to have the support of really good professors, both as an undergraduate and graduate student.” In addition to Kielbowicz and Ames, he names Don Pember, Richard Carter, Dick Conrad, Bill Johnston, and Roger Simpson as important educational influences.  “What I learned as a journalist has also been invaluable,” Wilson explains. “It’s knowing how to talk to a variety of people, do the research I need to get the best information I can, and then presenting it in a way that is interesting and succinct.”

Wilson was Olympia Bureau chief of the Tacoma News Tribune, leaving to return to his roots in community media and joining Frank Garred at the Leader in 1989. “I realized that what I wanted as a journalist was to have that connection with readers,” he says. “Through that, I was able to access the feedback cycle that sustains community journalism.” On balancing his roles as journalist and publisher, Wilson insists that his intent was always to be “an honest friend of the community. I was there to make sure we told the stories while being transparent about our operations. Community journalists do the same type of work as any other; they report the news as best and as fearlessly as they can. What makes the work exceptional, is the fact that they have a very attentive and active audience.”

He adds that this intimate relationship between the press and the public means that it’s even more important for community journalists to have “a fire in the belly to find out the truth and not get blown off course” by subjects who would prefer they stop asking questions. Wilson recalls a particular instance where the Leader went up against multiple institutions that had failed one young man who had been incarcerated for assault with a deadly weapon. “One of my journalists, Fred Obee, revisited the case and learned that the man had acted in self-defense. We than ran a series of articles that looked into all the institutions that had failed to help him; from the school where he was bullied, to the sheriff’s office and those involved in his trial. Of course, everyone we interviewed was defensive, but when the story reached the governor’s office, the jailed man received a pardon two months later. I am proud of having contributed to that,” Wilson says. “As a community journalist, I try not to make enemies, but you have to be willing to go after the bad actors when you need to. Often the press is the last chance a community has to address its problems. Sometimes you just have to hang in there and see it through.”

In mid-1995, the Leader was also Washington’s first newspaper company to launch a news website. “Most community weeklies didn’t know how to manage digital versus print publication cycles,” Wilson says. “I decided it was best for us to be friends with the internet.”

Wilson was a founding board member and early president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government; was president of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the longtime chair of its Foundation and scholarship program for college journalists; and his peers gave him community journalism’s highest honor, the Miles Turnbull Master Editor/Publisher Award.

“Whether online or in print, the heart of community journalism is integrity,” Wilson insists. “In every story we publish, we still have to get to the root of what’s happening, verify what we learn, keep going in the face of adversity, and see that it gets out there.” When asked what he wants today’s journalism students to know, Wilson pauses, deep in thought. “I want them to know that good, fearless, independent journalism is more important than ever,” he begins. “I want young, morally strong people to enter into this profession, and I expect and trust the UW to produce them.” After another moment’s consideration, he smiles. “That gives me more hope than anything else I can think of.”