Former Clark faculty, journalist keeps her fingers in newsprint

 In Donor Stories, News
Dee Anne Finken, retired journalism professor, is writing voters’ guides and researching the decline of local newspapers

Dee Anne Finken retired almost four years ago from Clark College. She was a journalism instructor and adviser to Clark’s student newspaper, The Independent, also known as The Indy. But the former journalist has kept her fingers in newsprint and ink, even in retirement.

Finken volunteers for the League of Women Voters, where she helped write a voters’ guide that was published in September 2021 by Washington newspapers including The Columbian. She is now researching how the decline of local newspapers affects Washington communities.

Finken grew up in a household that had two newspapers delivered every morning and took an early interest in writing. She majored in journalism in college and went on to write for the Fresno Bee and the Sacramento Bee.

“Journalism is the first draft of history,” Finken said in a recent interview. “I liked the emphasis on accuracy and knowing what’s going on in the world as a public service so people can make good decisions.”

She quit reporting to stay home and raise two children, and during her hiatus from journalism she became involved with the League of Women Voters. The League was founded after women won the right to vote in 1920. The nonpartisan group’s purpose is to promote voter participation by registering voters, providing voters with unbiased information and advocating for voting rights. In the League, Finken recognized the same principles that drew her to journalism.

“I was impressed with their interest in how the government works and democracy and making good choices,” Finken said. She admired the organization’s commitment to nonpartisanship.

She joined the League and volunteered for the group. Later, Finken and her family moved to the Pacific Northwest where she freelanced for The Oregonian. She went back to school and earned a master’s degree and eventually landed a job at Clark College.

Former Clark faculty member, Dee Ann Finken, fourth from the right, with student staff of The Indy student newspaper at a Associated College Press workshop in San Francisco in 2017.

Then Clark faculty member, Dee Ann Finken, fourth from the right, with student staff of The Indy student newspaper at a Associated College Press workshop in San Francisco in 2017.
Photo courtesy of Dee Anne Finken

Finken was adviser to The Indy from 2009 to 2018. During her tenure, she helped beef up Clark’s journalism program. She added new courses and created a student media advisory committee. She convinced one of her former editors from The Oregonian, Jim Camin, to volunteer as a writing coach.

While in the classroom, Finken often reminded her students of the importance of voting. Finken was 18 in 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds could vote following ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21.

“I remember how exciting it was,” she said. “And it breaks my heart to see that (young people are) one of the groups that doesn’t vote.”

Younger voters turn out at lower rates than older voters. In 2020, 76% of registered voters ages 65 to 74 cast ballots in the presidential election, compared to just 51% of voters ages 18 to 24.

After retiring from Clark in 2018, Finken worked with other League volunteers, in partnership with the Spokane Spokesman-Review, to research and write a special Your Vote section. In early September The Columbian published this section in its pages, too. Printed copies were distributed on the Clark campus, to remind students to cast their votes and to answer questions about how voting works and how the process is overseen in Washington. In a way, Finken continues to remind Clark students to exercise their right to vote, just as she did in the classroom.

News deserts

Now, Finken is working on a committee that’s studying the demise of local newspapers and its effects on Washington communities.

More than 2,200 local newspapers across the U.S. have shuttered since 2005. In 2008, there were twice as many newspaper reporters employed as there were in 2020. More than 200 counties in the U.S. are considered “news deserts,” or areas that don’t have a local newspaper. About half of all U.S. counties have just one newspaper, usually a weekly.

In her research, Finken is finding enormous consequences. Cities that don’t have a newspaper, for example, pay higher rates for municipal bonds than cities that have robust local news coverage. That’s because newspapers act as watchdogs and serve an important role pointing out and preventing mismanagement.

Finken interviewed public health officials who said that not having a local newspaper hampered their ability to disseminate accurate information about COVID-19. A lack of local newspapers also increases bipartisanship and reduces civic engagement.

President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan includes proposed tax breaks for local news organizations that hire local journalists. Finken said it’s possible that after her report is completed, the League could take a formal position on the Build Back Better proposal.

Finken’s work at Clark College lives on. When Finken retired, journalist Beth Slovic took over advising The Indy. Slovic created an internship at The Columbian for Clark students and named it after the former instructor—the Dee Anne Finken internship.

Finken is a donor to Clark College Foundation and helps raise money to continue the internship in her name. Want to donate to encourage Clark students to get involved with journalism? Visit our secure online giving form today.

Story by Lily Raff McCaulou

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the virtual 2021 PRSA Oregon Spotlight Awards occurred on November 18, 2021.Kohn Rose is a is a Clark College Foundation board of director.