These are strange times we live in.
The other day a visitor to the newspaper office told me she appreciates what we do at The Herald Journal. “The community needs you,” she said.
Then I heard a similar comment from a man on the phone, and yet another from an acquaintance I ran across in the supermarket.
Now wait just a minute, I thought. Have I somehow stumbled into an alternative universe like the guy in that movie where nobody but him remembers the Beatles and no one ever smoked a cigarette? People don’t usually compliment their local newspaper unless the paper just published a glowing feature story about someone in their family, reported on their NIMBY issue or took out one of their enemies, and this was not the case with any of these people.
I’m exaggerating, of course, but that’s what it seems like sometimes when you work in a newsroom. You field a lot of complaints, and believe me, this is not unique to The Herald Journal. I’ve worked at six newspapers now, and not one of them has ever been worth the paper it is printed on according to a certain segment of their readership — a very vocal segment, I might add.
Next to cheering on our favorite football team, grousing about taxes, shooting off Fourth of July fireworks and grilling hamburgers, badmouthing the local newspaper has to be one of America’s great national pastimes, and frankly I’m glad it is. In a backhanded, upside-down way, it means what news reporters and editors do is noticed and relevant.
But to continue with my surreal encounters of recent days: All three people speaking kindly of the newspaper used almost the exact same language, as if their comments were scripted as part of a campaign like “Hug a Cop.” I know what they said wasn’t actually scripted, but they were all definitely coming from the same place — giving a pep talk, as it were.
It’s no secret that newspapers are struggling. The headlines have been coming from every corner of the industry for years now, capped most recently in the Intermountain West by the stunning decline of the Denver Post under the stewardship of a profiteering hedge fund and the announcement that the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s flagship newspaper, is converting to a nonprofit model in an effort to stay afloat.
Add to that the “enemy of the people” and “fake news” drumbeat coming from the White House these days, and the thought of life without newspapers is really starting to hit home for a lot of long-time readers. As much as the local news sheet might infuriate them at times, a lot of folks still want what newspapers provide: community connection, local human interest stories, breaking news updates, watchdog journalism, vital information and public discourse — not to mention sports, puzzles, comics, classified ads, coupons and a darn good bird cage liner.
Of course, how well we fulfill each of these roles each day is variable, and as newspaper staffs and page-counts shrink, it becomes more and more challenging. Some community members recognize this, and so they’re offering encouraging words. My response is, thanks, guys, we need you to the exact same degree that you need us. This process we call community journalism is a constant interplay between readers and reporters, news sources and news gatherers.
I think about the role of community newspapers a lot — virtually every day for 40 years worth of a lot — and it seems to me there is one function small-town papers like The Herald Journal are counted on to provide more than any other. That function is recognition — recognition for people’s accomplishments, their service to others, their heroics, their interesting activities, their milestones and, finally, recognition for simply existing.
Everyone remembers if there has ever been a photo or an article about them in a newspaper, and either they or their mothers have a copy of it in a scrapbook somewhere. This speaks to the value people ascribe to what appears in print and the power of newspapers to mark moments in time.
I know journalists’ watchdog role is crucial and it’s our public obligation to hold government officials' feet to the fire, but frankly it is the recognition news that generates the most positive feedback from readers and, yes, the most complaints. When The Herald Journal overlooks certain events or accomplishments in Cache Valley, there’s hell to pay. To put it bluntly, people want blood for not getting ink.
I am immediately reminded of an email we received last week from a local business person wanting coverage for something she’s involved in. She thinks the way to secure this coverage is to insult the paper and bring up examples of perceived unfairness going back years — in other words, browbeat us into submission.
It can be an effective tactic, but everybody comes away so battered and bruised, you wonder what is really gained by it all.
We try to cover as many events and positive news stories as we can, given staffing and time constraints, but community members wanting coverage also have to realize there are news judgement considerations at play as well. Will a story have broad interest? Does it stand out or have some special element? Is it about somebody who has already received more than their share of coverage? Does it dovetail with other significant regional or national news?
We may make some dumb decisions along the way — and we always do if you ask that businesswoman — but the fact that these decisions are made by an independent news staff hopefully free of undue influence is what makes it special to be recognized in the newspaper.
So those compliments directed at The Herald Journal did feel good, especially since they weren’t tied to any particular story grinding any particular ax. Instead, they addressed what this and other newspapers represent in society at large.
Yes, I agree, we need newspapers. We need them for all kinds of reasons and maybe now more than ever.