Shining a new light on South Dakota

Nonprofit website is latest evolution in state’s media landscape

October 25, 2022 5:00 am
(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

(Illustration by Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

When I was in journalism school more than 20 years ago, a professor arranged a conference call for a group of students with a national magazine editor.

I asked for career advice. The editor replied, “I’ll tell you one thing: I wouldn’t get a job at a newspaper.”

That was probably not the answer my professors at South Dakota State University wanted to hear. They were preparing me and dozens of other students to be the next generation of newspaper reporters, photographers and editors. But we all knew that the internet revolution – still in its infancy then – held the potential to shatter the foundations of print journalism.

Nevertheless, I graduated and promptly got a job at a newspaper. I loved reporting, researching, interviewing and writing. And I loved doing all of that in service to the cause of informing a democratic society. At the time, newspapers were still the best place for that kind of work.

One of the dictionary definitions of our name, “Searchlight,” is “an apparatus for projecting a powerful beam of light.” That’s an apt description of journalism, and it’s what we’ll attempt to do: shine a beam of light across the state, illuminating the most critical issues facing South Dakotans.

Thus began an adventure that took me to Worthington, Minnesota, and then to Mitchell and Rapid City in my home state of South Dakota. I covered sports and news, shot photographs, wrote columns and editorials, designed pages, edited news copy, coached reporters and interns, and basically did everything there was to do in a newspaper newsroom.

It was not a lucrative career, but there were other compensations. In the regular course of my work, I met a man who was building a boat to sail around the world. I rode a zebra. I interviewed Barack Obama and covered a campaign stop by Mike Pence. I descended into a missile silo. I went to court and pried open a public contract that had been kept secret.

I also experienced some of the last of the “old days” of newspapers. At my first couple of jobs, we were still developing photographic negatives in darkrooms. My first employer distributed profit-sharing checks at the end of each year.

But I distinctly recall a staff meeting in those early years when we debated whether any content should go on the internet, and how much. And I remember wondering what that debate would mean for my future.

Nearly two decades later, the internet had eroded revenues so much that many newspapers were cutting pages and publication days, while conducting seemingly never-ending rounds of layoffs. I decided it was finally time to get out.

For the past few years, I worked as a reporter and then supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. I continued writing and editing news stories that were published on the internet, and I learned how to tell stories with audio and video.

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All the while, I watched in amazement as people sent donations to SDPB’s nonprofit arm, the Friends of SDPB. Having heard newspaper readers complain about paying $1 for a single copy or a few hundred dollars for a year’s subscription, it was astounding to learn about supporters of SDPB voluntarily writing checks with lots of zeros.

It further convinced me of something I’d been reading and thinking about for several years: that the nonprofit model is a big part of journalism’s future. As the internet continues to eat away at the subscriptions and advertising that support for-profit journalism, and as threats to democracy highlight the importance of journalism to a free society, it makes sense to view journalism in a new way: as a public good, worthy of support from those who appreciate it.

That leads me to my next adventure as editor-in-chief of this new online publication, South Dakota Searchlight. It’s a project of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit that’s already launched websites and newsrooms in 29 other states.

South Dakota Searchlight will operate with a staff of four – an editor-in-chief and three reporters. We’ll publish a daily mix of news and commentary (including commentary from contributors).

One of the dictionary definitions of our name, “Searchlight,” is “an apparatus for projecting a powerful beam of light.” That’s an apt description of journalism, and it’s what we’ll attempt to do: shine a beam of light across the state, illuminating the most critical issues facing South Dakotans.

We’ll provide our content for free on our website, with no ads, surveys or subscriptions (although you can sign up to receive a free newsletter in your email inbox if you wish, and we’ll also accept donations). Our content is also free for other media outlets to republish, and we hope the addition of our statewide reporting will free up local journalists to aggressively cover their communities.

After weathering two decades of storms that damaged newspapers and journalism, I’m excited to help with a rebuilding project, adding new jobs and new reporting back into South Dakota’s journalistic ecosystem.

I suppose there are still people who would advise journalism students to avoid jobs at newspapers. There have been times when I might’ve advised young journalists to avoid the profession altogether. But not anymore. With the advent of States Newsroom and other new nonprofit and for-profit ventures like it, new media outlets are rising up to replace some of what we’ve lost. I believe the future of journalism is bright, and I’m proud that South Dakota Searchlight will be a part of that future.


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Seth Tupper
Seth Tupper

Seth is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. He was previously a supervising senior producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and a newspaper journalist in Rapid City and Mitchell.