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Holly Kays. File photo Holly Kays. File photo

When I first arrived in Western North Carolina just after New Year’s Day, 2014, I wasn’t planning to stay. 

My new job at The Smoky Mountain News had brought me back to the Appalachians from the Mountain West, where I’d spent the last couple years trying to launch a career, and for that, I was grateful. But at 25, two years felt like a good long time to do anything, and I figured that was all I needed to inject some continuity into my fragmented resume, explore the local hiking trails and consider my next steps. I would never have guessed a decade would go by before the time came for something new.

At SMN, I quickly realized, I’d happened upon something that’s become all too rare in the world of journalism — a newspaper dedicated to quality over quantity, where I could let curiosity take the wheel, and take the time I needed to fully understand and tell each story.

The more I looked, the more stories I found to tell. Over the past decade, I’ve covered wildfires, elections, a forest planning process, a police shooting and an impeachment. Plus, countless less-standard stories motivated by my own desire to know more — a look at how A.T. hikers get their trail names, a deep dive into efforts to rebrand kudzu as an agricultural resource, a feature showing how Western Carolina University’s marching band draws enrollment and an in-depth look at the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women on tribal lands, to name a few.

My time at SMN has been a happy season of my professional life, but all seasons eventually come to an end. This time next week, I’ll be starting my new job as lead writer for Smokies Life (formerly the Great Smoky Mountains Association), where I’ll continue to tell the stories of the Smokies’ places and people in a variety of formats. You might even read some of those pieces in SMN.

In many ways, this new job fulfills the vision I had for my life while in college — getting paid to write about the natural world that has fascinated me since childhood. But in my nearly 12 years as a newspaper reporter, I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for journalism’s vital role in society, and an acute awareness of what a strange and dangerous time this is for that cornerstone of democracy.

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In countless communities, newspapers are shrinking or folding altogether. Seasoned journalists are being laid off to satisfy cost-cutting measures for massive corporations whose shareholders have no real interest in the wellbeing of the communities their newspapers serve. As a result, government meetings go uncovered, abuses of power unchallenged, and citizens uninformed. Instead of serving as a true “first draft of history,” these newspapers’ ever-shrinking pages hold a smattering of surface-level content, most of which is only loosely relevant to the local community.

At the same time, journalists at what used to be considered the nation’s most prestigious publications make life harder for those trying to serve their local and regional communities. Too many of them seem to have traded in a career spent in search of truth, led by curiosity, for one dedicated to proving a predetermined thesis.

In my experience, that generalization rarely extends to local newsrooms. I, like everyone I’ve worked with over the years at SMN, do my grocery shopping, go out to dinner, walk my dog and perform all the other little rituals of daily life in the communities I write about. We live here, and we have a direct incentive to do the right thing by both our sources and our community.

But good journalism is predicated on trust — between source and reporter, and between writer and reader — and the erosion of these standards at the national level impacts both relationships at the local level. It drives a wedge between local reporters and readers who judge them as guilty by association, and it also makes it increasingly difficult for local journalists to refer in shorthand to a nationally reported story, trusting that the national journalist got the premise right.

So the job is harder than ever before, but the stakes are just as high. Studies have associated strong local journalism with preventing overspending and misconduct by governments and companies, increasing voter turnout and fostering a more informed, less biased electorate. Communities without this kind of coverage are referred to as news deserts — what we need instead are well-watered ecosystems populated by journalists who continue to seek out the truth and report the facts as they find them.

Thankfully, WNC, unlike many other places in the country, has a slew of such journalists. I exit The Smoky Mountain News team with a profound appreciation for the job they do, and optimism that they’ll continue the hard work of finding and telling the stories that most need to be told.

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