By GWEN OREL
Program Notes: In the theater, program notes are inserts into a program that provide further background on the play. In this series, I comment on what I’m writing about, what I’m thinking, and what’s in the paper at the time.
Speaking of the massacre in Annapolis on Thursday, June 28, correspondent Hans Nichols told Rachael Maddow that Capital Gazette prints local news, “but local news that matters.”
That made me angry.
Nichols stressed the investigative work the reporters did at Capital Gazette, one of the nation’s oldest newspapers, and how they hold officials accountable.
You know, that explanation only made it worse.
Holding elected officials accountable is one of the functions of a local newspaper. It’s why we don’t just report what is said at Township Council meetings. We don’t merely take notes from Board of Education meetings, we look into situations, using every journalistic tool at our disposal, OPRA (Open Public Records Act), FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). We follow up.
Nichols clearly wanted to make sure viewers understood that local journalists do this work too. My guess? Nobody needed that reminder, except out-of-touch viewers who no longer have a local paper, and sadly, that’s far too many people these days.
There’s something else too though: “but local news that matters” implies that some local news doesn’t.
That’s not true. It’s never been true. It’s not true on the national or world front: the Royal Wedding last month wasn’t hard news. People magazine and TMZ don’t focus on hard news. People flip to the sports section right away. The biggest difference for us writing about local people and events is that readers might actually know the people or organizations we write about.
To me, that possibility of the news touching you makes local news more important, not less.
I realized that for the first time when I lived in Alabama in the early 2000s. There, the local TV news covered traffic and weather that actually applied to me. (Probably this was true in Pittsburgh when I was in grad school, but I must have skipped the news in favor of Semiotics, or something.) In New Jersey, “local” news had always been about New York. I’d grown up accepting reports about tie-ups on the L.I.E., crime reports in Brooklyn.
I still remember the slipping-sideways feeling, watching TV reporters tell me about the mess downtown, where Judge Roy Moore was causing an uproar over the statue of the 10 Commandments. Seeing the shelves of Lowe’s empty of batteries because a flurry was predicted (she writes smugly), and it was a Lowe’s I frequented. Montgomery Advertiser, founded in 1829 as The Planter’s Gazette, did a story on the Celtic Music Society of Montgomery when I founded it with Lori Bowyer Fly. When we had our first concert, at a local music bar, we had to sell porch tickets (at a discounted rate) for people to look through the windows.
Apparently Montgomerians could relate to my frustration when looking at a band’s tour schedule only to find they weren’t coming within 200 miles of me.
Six years ago, I interviewed for a full time job at The Montclair Times. I had been freelancing for years, mostly at national publications, including the New York Times and its (now defunct) Local blog. It’s great to write for a large audience. But.
At the interview, I said: No matter what happens in national news, people will always want to know what happened at the Board of Ed meeting the night before.
I still believe that.
There are pundits on national TV who live in Montclair. They talk about the nation. They come home, and they want to know if a new stop sign’s been installed, and what’s going on with the Bellevue. Local news hits you where you live. Literally.
I’m not saying don’t care about national news. We have to care.
But that doesn’t make the things that are in our road — the horse chestnut we need to save; the booksigning at the library; the teens putting on concerts for charity — less meaningful. It makes them more so. It’s what we care about; and it’s what we have to defend.
Writing this just before July 4, I can’t help thinking how national politics have always been local. We were a nation of citizen soldiers, who didn’t want to be a tax-paying “suburb.”
Being American has always meant being local.
Wendi Winters, who lived in Montclair in the ’90s and wrote for the Montclair Times, was one of the journalists killed last week. At Capital Gazette, she wrote community news, including such stories as “Teen of the Week.”
Hans Nichols, this stuff matters. These are things people really want to read.