In the fall issue of Quill, we examine the state of local news from a writer who visited dozens of newsrooms across the country. Those of us who work in local newsrooms, or have friends and colleagues working there, know all too well about the challenges they face under relentless financial pressures. But we also know about the power of local journalists to change a community – often their own community – for the better.
Every day, local journalists expose corruption and incompetence in local government; reveal the state of education in local schools; track trends in crime, housing and development; and showcase citizens who are working to improve the lives of others. One of the great thrills of my years as a local news reporter was attending a packed city council or school board meeting and watching residents, clutching that day’s newspaper (or, in later years, their cellphones with the paper’s homepage called up), demand explanations from their local officials about what they just read. When people disparage “the media,” more often than not they’re referring to national news organizations, not their local newspaper or regional TV and radio stations.
There’s an undeniable sense of community created by local news outlets, and local newspapers in particular. And if there were any doubt about the value of a local newspaper, that doubt should have ended on June 28 in Annapolis, Maryland.
The shooting at the Capital Gazette led thousands of people to donate nearly $700,000 to a fund benefiting the families, victims and survivors of the attack and a separate scholarship fund for aspiring journalists (SPJ raised more than $10,000 toward the funds). It led to an outpouring of appreciation for local newspapers in Lincoln, Nebraska; Portland, Maine; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Brooklyn, New York; and elsewhere. They received food, tokens of appreciation, and notes of thanks and encouragement. Local readers across the country shared their connections with their community newspapers. If a small shred of good came out of the senseless loss of Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Wendi Winters and Rebecca Smith, it’s that at least for a moment, people realized the important role that local journalists play in a democracy. The four slain Capital Gazette journalists will join a tragic roster of more than 2,300 reporters, photographers and broadcasters on the Newseum’s Journalists Memorial, a two-story wall honoring those who paid the ultimate price of covering the news. It’s a reminder that we must continue fighting against those who would silence the press.
That role continues to come under attack in many ways. The massive layoffs at the New York Daily News (where I once served as deputy head of news) were a gut-punch to those who care about local journalism. Every lost job in journalism is one less watchdog on government, one less Freedom of Information request to a public agency, one less person to ask the tough questions.
But journalists press on despite the forces against them. As you read this, the surviving staff at the Capital Gazette, through unimaginable grief, are getting a damn paper out. So are the 45 journalists left at the New York Daily News. And so are thousands of other local journalists, be it a newspaper, morning radio report, evening news broadcast or updated website.
Let’s do all we can to help journalists in our own communities win the fight. Subscribe to your local newspaper. Send a note of thanks to your local newsroom. Encourage your families and friends to do the same. And, by practicing ethical journalism, you honor all of those who sacrificed their lives in doing the same.
In closing, I’d like to say that it has been my honor to serve as your president for the past year. I’ve enjoyed sharing my passion for journalism with you through my Quill column, and I’m excited to see where SPJ will go in the coming year. SPJ and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation will continue doing all they can to support newsrooms, and the journalists working tirelessly in them, through our job training, legal defense fund, student scholarships, professional grants and more. You play an integral role in SPJ’s success because we couldn’t do all that we do without membership support. Get involved, and help us preserve a free press in a democracy, and create that sense of community that helps democracy thrive.