One of the features of the 2023 legislative session has been something of a head-scratcher: Gov. Kristi Noem has quit making herself available to South Dakota media for weekly press conferences.
She has chosen to give Capitol reporters the silent treatment at a time when journalism in this state has more outlets than ever before.
The vitality of journalism in South Dakota can be seen in the legislation offered that would make it easier for start-up news operations to become legal newspapers. Legal newspapers are allowed to print public notices from local governments. Three bills offered during the current session would have changed the rules governing legal newspapers.
Readers in three communities — Sioux Falls, Aberdeen and Watertown — believe that the quality of their local newspapers has taken a nosedive since Gannett and Gatehouse Media essentially merged about three years ago. While the company is still called Gannett, the South Dakota newspapers in that chain bear little resemblance to the publications that have served those communities for years. Due to the company’s overwhelming debt, staffs have been drastically cut and news gathering has lost its breadth and aggressiveness.
In two communities, new online publications have sprung up to fill the journalism void. The Dakota Scout of Sioux Falls and Aberdeen Insider, both less than a year old, have had no trouble attracting online subscribers to their news websites. Dakota Scout also publishes a free weekly printed newspaper, and Aberdeen Insider has plans for a weekly print edition starting in spring.
3 newspaper, journalism bills fail in committee
Dakota Scout and its community backers were behind two bills in the South Dakota Legislature that would have allowed its online subscriptions and free print editions to qualify it to print legal notices. Newspaper lobbyists twice argued, successfully, that while they welcome more journalism in South Dakota, there was no mechanism in the bills to allow for an audit of the online subscribers.
In South Dakota, newspapers are allowed to print city and school district notices from the county in which they hold their second-class mailing permit. The second bill was written so hastily that it would have allowed what the legislation fondly referred to as a “21st Century Newspaper” to qualify to print legal notices for any city or school district in the state.
Another bill would have done away with the requirement that a newspaper publish for a year before it becomes eligible to print legal notices.
While all three bills failed in committee, lobbyists for the South Dakota Newspaper Association aren’t blind to what’s going on. They know that when the next session starts there had better be some legislation ready that figures out a way to make publications like Dakota Scout and Aberdeen Insider eligible to publish public notices. It’s best for newspapers, in cooperation with these start-ups, to make that plan rather than having the Legislature do it for them.
It’s also obvious that people in Sioux Falls and Aberdeen are hungry for news about their communities. So hungry that they want to reward these new publications by investing their public notice funds with them, even if they have to change the law to do it.
And these two start-ups aren’t the only changes in South Dakota journalism. Since 2017, South Dakota News Watch, a nonprofit news organization that specializes in long-form investigative journalism, has been sharing its stories with readers and media outlets throughout the state. You’re reading this commentary through the auspices of South Dakota Searchlight, a nonprofit newsroom started in 2022 that provides news and commentary on issues of statewide interest.
Back in January, the newspaper association hosted Newspaper Day at the Capitol, an event that always includes a news conference with Republican and Democratic leaders. Both sets of leaders, independent of each other, praised the current session’s press coverage and the growth of the Capitol news corps.
Party leaders field questions, but Noem a no show at Newspaper Day
One traditional component was missing from Newspaper Day. Usually there is also a news conference with the governor. Noem didn’t show up this year, just as she’s been a no-show so far for the news conferences traditionally held each week of the session by party leaders and the governor.
Recently elected to four more years, and often mentioned as a possible candidate for national office, Noem acts as if she just doesn’t need the South Dakota press anymore. Her performance in the current session, however, shows that if the legislation she proposes is really important to her, she needs to get her message out to South Dakotans by cultivating the state press corps rather than spending her time on Fox News.
SOUTH DAKOTA SEARCHLIGHT: Noem avoids press with strong journalism presence in Pierre
If the governor had taken advantage of the increase in the size of the Capitol press corps to get the public on her side, maybe her signature bills wouldn’t have died this session. Her plan to cut the state sales tax on food? Dead. Her push to add more family leave for state employees? Dead. Her call for a board to vet the sales of agricultural land so it won’t be purchased by “countries that hate us?” Dead.
At a time when journalism is booming in South Dakota, the governor is choosing to stand by silently. Perhaps if she had taken advantage of this boom, rather than remaining mute, some of her legislative agenda might still be alive today.
Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He’s retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.