As someone who has spent the majority of her adult life working at weekly newspapers, I tend to get overly excited during the annual whittling down of that year’s “top 10” stories.
The process varies from paper to paper, but typically involves a glance back at every front page, along with story counts and online data gathering.
With one reporter on vacation and another reporter position open, we’re operating with a skeleton crew at The Post-Record this month, so reporter Dawn Feldhaus and I sat down a few days before the Christmas holiday and came up with the “top 10” list published on pages A1 and A5 in today’s paper.
There were several stories I had hoped to throw into an “honorable mention” section, but lack of space stymied my plans (sorry, tree preservation and rock quarry stories). I jokingly told Dawn I felt bad for “our babies” that didn’t make the list, but there is some truth to that. To me, everything we write is important. Every article, photo and opinion column helps paint a more complete picture of life in this place, at this time — exactly what the “newspaper of record” should do.
The stories that affect more people, like this year’s No. 1 story about staffing levels at the local fire department, or garner more eyes online — teenagers walking out of school after a national school shooting — tend to make the “top 10,” but that doesn’t mean they’re more important than feature articles about children filling a school bus with donated food or breaking news stories about toxic algae in our lakes. All stories matter in this business, and we work hard to help our readers see their community from a variety of perspectives.
The work is rewarding, but 2018 has been a tough year to be in the newspaper business. We’ve witnessed our nation’s president go into textbook dictator mode, ramping up attacks on any journalist or media outlet that dare question him, and, in June, we collectively shed tears for five community newspaper journalists slaughtered in their Capital Gazette office.
In early 2018, Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote about the threats facing journalism today.
“Not only are the dangers faced by reporters growing and morphing daily … but the nature of the threats we face is, quite frankly, more wide-ranging and fundamental than I ever would have imagined,” Pope wrote. “Donald Trump’s press-hating tweets and the trickle-down threat posed by his language are just slivers of the problem. What about the guttural fear faced by reporters as they do their jobs in a world dominated by trolls? Or the psychic and physical toll of burnout, particularly for reporters of color working at a time when racist language permeates our news feeds?”
We are constantly asking ourselves how the stories we’re working on impact our community and how we can do a little better, push a little harder. But, those of us who have been in this business long enough know community newspapers and the hyperlocal stories they generate — often the root of the stories you see on television or read online — are in serious danger.
A report from the University of North Carolina showed at least 1,800 U.S. newspapers, most of them community weeklies, disappeared between 2004 and 2015, and rural communities with low-income, older residents were most likely to have a “news desert” with no local news being produced in those towns. What’s more, the newspapers that are still standing have seen decreases in staff as publishers grapple with reduced advertising and increased costs. From 2004 to 2017, the number of reporters, editors and photographers working in the newspaper industry declined by more than 45 percent, with fewer than 40,000 Americans now working on a newspaper editorial staff.
If you are one of the many people wondering if the loss of a small, weekly newspaper is really that big of a deal, we urge you to listen to a recent National Public Radio (NPR) report by journalist Shankar Vedantam, who discovered that the closure of a local newspaper has a negative impact on a town’s finances, specifically on the local government’s interest rates, which can cost taxpayers several million dollars each year. Banks want to know their investments are safe. Towns that have newspaper watchdogs looking into local government spending are a safer bet. That NPR story, “Local newspaper closures come with hefty price tag for residents,” can be found at npr.org.
When we celebrate 2019 next week, I will wish for a better year for my journalism peers and for readers who rely on newspapers to help them understand the who, what, when, where and why of their communities.
~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor