The Gem State Bids Adieu To StateImpact Idaho

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Courtesy: NPR StateImpact

StateImpact Idaho signed off last week. The two-year collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and NPR took an in-depth look at Idaho’s economy, state policy, and the people being directly affected by both.

In my humble opinion, we rocked it. My co-reporter Molly Messick and I moved to a new state, asked a lot of questions, covered a lot of ground within the beat, and produced award-winning journalism. I hope our archived website will remain a resource for the people of Idaho.

I could spend 2,000+ words detailing what I learned over the course of StateImpact Idaho’s multimedia reporting project. Recounting our successes, struggles, and in some cases — failures. But Lewiston Tribune editorial writer Marty Trillhaase did part of that for me.

Marty was kind enough to allow me to post his editorial — in full — right here:

Idaho is a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps place where anyone with a little gumption and a work ethic can join the middle class.

All we need is a government that gets out of the way. Widespread prosperity is one corner – and two or three more tax cuts – away.

It was never true. But you rarely heard it.

Not in a state where the political debate pits the pro-business side of the Republican Party against the anti-government wing.

Not in a state where the big business lobby presumes to be the sole voice on the economy – and often is.

And not in a state where the conversation occurs among elites.

At least not until two years ago, when National Public Radio partnered with Boise State Public Radio to create StateImpact Idaho. Idaho was among eight states winning a two-year NPR grant to launch this Web-based project.

At StateImpact Idaho, two reporters – Emilie Ritter Saunders from Helena, Mont., and Molly Messick of Laramie, Wyo. – brought fresh eyes and a new slant to examining Idaho’s economy.

Their timing could not have been better. Since the Great Recession broke, Idaho had slipped from the top of the economic pyramid to the floor.

The housing collapse produced widespread unemployment and the highest growth of food stamp use in the country.

But Ritter Saunders and Messick waded into these waters from a new perspective: They’d explore Idaho from the bottom rung up. What emerged was a portrait Idahoans were unaccustomed to viewing:

  • A state with the highest proportion of minimum-wage jobs in the nation.
  • A place where, in spite of the low incomes, living costs are higher than you’d expect – especially in the rural communities.
  • A location beset by too few doctors.
  • An economy where good-paying jobs go wanting because too few skilled workers qualify.
  • A state where school funding has eroded to the point where in some communities, rebuilding gymnasiums has relied upon volunteer labor.
  • A political environment that congratulates itself for recruiting low-wage call centers.
  • A culture that is watching its youngest, presumably most marketable people migrate to more lucrative opportunities in other states while retirees move in to replace them.

This wasn’t advocacy journalism. But in an age of cash-strapped, pared-back newsrooms, this in-depth reporting filled a void and became a must-read.

More people began examining why a generation of trickle-down economics hadn’t delivered on its promise of prosperity.

And it held economic policy makers accountable.

Case in point was StateImpact Idaho’s handling of the $141 million personal property tax break the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry planned to ram through the 2013 Idaho Legislature.

Ritter Saunders and Messick compiled reams of data – which cities, counties and schools stood to lose the most and which big corporations stood to profit. Next they produced an interactive map detailing which enterprises stood to gain the most in each of Idaho’s 44 counties.

Suddenly, the tax cutters had to justify gutting services in the name of a tax windfall for 10 percent of Idaho’s companies, such as Micron, Idaho Power, J.R. Simplot and Clearwater Paper.

In the end, lawmakers compromised, extending about $20 million in tax relief to small and mid-sized companies.

That’s what a two-sided conversation sounds like.

Or at least did.

With its grant funding used up and no local money to replace it, StateImpact Idaho shut down last week – although its Web page will remain as an archive of its past reporting.

Well, it was nice while it lasted. – M.T.

Ever since it became public that StateImpact Idaho wouldn’t continue in its original form, I’ve heard from journalists across the region, our readers, our listeners, and casual observers. Many of them — like me — were bummed the project wasn’t sustainable here.

The day I published the final StateImpact Idaho web post, we received a flood of tweets and Facebook messages. The sentimental side of me collected those messages into a digital scrapbook. On days when I question whether StateImpact Idaho was worth my two years of blood, sweat, and tears (lots of tears), I’ll read these.

Thank you, Idaho.