Small-town papers help knit communities together
I’m dedicating my July 4 to the courageous journalists who were murdered last week at the Capital Gazette in Maryland.
Independence Day celebrates our nation’s declaration that it would not abide by the arbitrary decrees from across an ocean by a monarch who feared putting power in the hands of his citizens. With the Declaration of Independence began the formal shaping of this nation and its ideals of freedom that are unlike those in any other country.
But last week’s shooting rampage was an eye-opener, a game-changer. Journalists are killed in Mexico and Russia and other countries where corrupt governments and oligarchs and drug lords call the shots. They don’t die in community paper newsrooms where most of our resources go to covering town board meetings or art strolls or the demise of Ghost Town or the plans to re-shape N.C. 107 in Sylva.
Of course I’m biased toward newspapers, their mission, and the First Amendment. I clearly remember being inspired to become a reporter while watching the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973 and the venerable Sen. Sam Ervin grilling Nixon’s associates. In that instance, a newspaper brought down the most powerful man in the world by exposing his wrongdoings.
Of course my universe as a reporter and editor at small papers is much narrower. But small-town journalists take their mission just as seriously. Like cops and teachers, we are part of family devoted to bringing important information to the communities we call home. We strive for fairness, accuracy and objectivity in our stories as we hold public officials and others accountable to you — the community — for their actions.
Being part of the community now becomes a bit more complicated, and it burns me up that we have to take this route. We’ll be locking some doors to our office, I’m afraid, something that will psychologically — at least for me — provide a wall of separation I’d hoped we would never have to put up.
My youngest son is about to turn 20, and I remember watching schools tighten security as he went through the Haywood County School System and as school shooting occurred across the country. At elementary schools you’re now buzzed in and out, just like at the courthouse and at many government buildings. That’s the new normal, and there’s no way we’ll ever go back to the day when I could pop into my children’s elementary school, walk into the principal’s office unannounced and say good morning, mosey down the hall to one my kid’s classes before the bell and tell them that they’d have to be bus riders today, that I couldn’t pick them up. So informal, so easy, so nostalgic.
That was just 10 years ago.
Never before has very real, very important journalism like that practiced at newspapers like the Capital Gazette, the Sylva Herald, The Mountaineer, the Franklin Press, the Cherokee One Feather, the Smoky Mountain Times in Bryson City and The Smoky Mountain News been so at risk. The industry is changing, profits are shrinking, and all of us are doing everything we can to survive in this new business model where so much news is consumed online.
Coupled with that, we are in an age when politicians and others are at work trying to undermine trust in what we do. Local newspapers get lumped together with blatantly biased media outlets as information is thrown at citizens from hundreds of sources. Those of us with clear standards are lumped with those who don’t. It’s something we deal with every day.
While divisiveness sweeps across the land, I firmly believe that small-town journalists knit communities together. We celebrate triumphs and encourage discussion, hoping our pages somehow resemble the town square where issues are hashed out in public. We point out problems, but in doing so we try to encourage stakeholders to come to a consensus to make the places we live better, stronger, safer.
I started this piece thinking about July 4 and the Declaration of Independence, and now I’m reminded of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which begins with the famous words “We the people ….”
The reporters and editors at the Capital Gazette — and the journalists throughout this nation that work tirelessly to do their jobs — are “the people,” just like all our readers and all those who would weaken the role we play. We are all in this together. Weaken the Fourth Estate, though, and you threaten this country, its freedoms, and our constitutional system. It’s as simple as that.
Have a great Independence Day.