Don’t tell Betsy Russell that newspapers are dead

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Betsy Russell has seen just about everything in her long career covering Idaho politics, so there isn’t much that surprises her.

That is, until the Idaho Press of Nampa contacted her in April with what she described as “a really interesting and attractive proposition.”

She was offered a job as a state government reporter and Boise bureau chief, once the bureau opens. The salary was right, the conditions were attractive, so she took it – creating about as much buzz as the Republican gubernatorial primary race. Russell wasn’t looking for a job, and the Spokesman-Review has been loyal to her over the years. She had been with that newspaper for almost 27 years, and her Eye on Boise blog has long been a “must read” for anybody wanting to keep up with the political scene.

Her new job allows her to have a sharper focus on issues and officials in the Treasure Valley, to go with her state coverage. “Essentially, it’s what I have been doing all along,” she said.

Russell is, without question, the best in the business in Idaho – instantly bringing a higher journalistic status to a sleepy Canyon County paper that for many years didn’t even send a reporter to cover the Legislature. As Publisher Matt Davision puts it, “She’s our LeBron James with our expansion effort. She’s a game-changer.”

The Idaho Statesman, the longtime newspaper kingpin of the Treasure Valley, suddenly has competition. Other additions at the Idaho Press include a Boise city reporter, an Ada County government reporter, a cops and courts reporter, a photographer and sports reporter. With Russell overseeing the bureau, there will be no shortage of creative ideas and quality reporting coming from that operation.

Russell’s hiring certainly added excitement in the Idaho Press newsroom. Davison said that when he announced the move to his news staff, “I started reading her bio, without mentioning her name, and I could see it in their faces. Their eyes were getting bigger as they were starting to connect the dots. You could see their jaws literally gaping.”

The reaction was understandable. Russell’s rapid-fire reporting has set the standard for political and statehouse reporting in Idaho.

The bold actions came soon after the family-owned Adams Publishing Group purchased the Idaho Press (then known as the Press-Tribune) and other Idaho newspapers from Pioneer News Group. The Statesman, which had been printing in Nampa, moved its printing operation to Twin Falls – giving the new owners a sizeable revenue hit. Executives with Adams and Idaho Press decided that one way to make up for that lost revenue was to go head-to-head with the Statesman in Ada County. The Idaho Press can have coverage of night sporting events and other late-breaking news in the next day’s paper, whereas the Statesman cannot with its earlier deadlines.

This is a battle that Idaho Press can win if there are enough readers who prefer a morning newspaper over turning on a computer. Or if the newspaper industry indeed is dead and readers go the digital route, the Statesman will come out on top. We’ll see what happens.

“Our owners believe there’s a runway for print journalism, so we’re doubling down,” Davison said. “The Boise market area, which includes the Treasure Valley, is not ready to move digitally as aggressively as a market like Seattle or San Francisco might be.”

Russell’s face lights up as she talks about her life at her new digs. “The paper is really ramping up and expanding, and that’s a rare thing to find in journalism right now. It’s wonderfully refreshing. They didn’t have to do that. They could have decided to cut back like most other newspapers are doing. But they saw an opportunity here, and so we’re going for it. And I’ll tell you, it’s fun.”

Her new audience isn’t confined to Canyon County. The Adams group includes the Post Register in Idaho Falls, the Standard Journal in Rexburg, the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello and eight smaller papers – all of which have access to Russell’s stories. And all will benefit from the beefed-up state government coverage in their papers.

“One thing interesting about Adams and the Idaho Press is they have not given up on the print newspaper, and I haven’t either,” Russell said. “It’s tremendously exciting and gratifying, and I’m so glad to be doing what I’m doing – and doing it now.”

I haven’t heard that kind of optimism in a long time from anybody in the newspaper field.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com

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