Back in the mid-1970s, both my college roommate and I found ourselves trying to eke out livings as freelance writers. He was in New York and I was in Princeton. We touched base now and then, apprising each other of potential opportunities and encouraging each other when jobs failed to materialize or pay off as we had hoped.
We discovered that each one of us had a little aphorism tacked somewhere above our typewriters (they would have been taped to our monitors if such a thing had existed then). Mine said something about the three keys to success being — in reverse order of importance — physical health, mental health, and patience. His, as I recall, was more straightforward: What you are doing is important.
That daily reminder was important. At the time the people who really counted in our industry were those at the very top. Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post had taken down Nixon. Seymour Hersh of the New York Times had won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. That was important, no doubt.
But what was I doing at the time? Having quit Time magazine with the goal of establishing my own independent voice as a journalist, I was knocking out pieces for every little journal I could find, covering football for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, filling in for vacationing reporters at the Town Topics, ghost-writing for a conservative alumni publication. Nothing so important as reporting for the New York Times or Washington Post. But I was making a living and developing a narrative style that was my own, not some atonal pronouncement of a collective editorial point of view.
As the sticker on the bulletin board said: What you are doing is important.
Those of us in the journalism business today may need to remind ourselves of that fact. Even at the national level, the news media is being dismissed as “fake news.” The president and his minions ridicule reporters and demand that they be fired for making mistakes. Closer to home, community journalism is still not glamorous, and now it’s facing unprecedented competition from online media that rarely cover the news and more often offer a free soapbox to anyone with an opinion to share.
It’s easy for us in the news business to lose track of what we are really all about. So, in my other role as editorial director of Community News Service, publishers of community newspapers in nine central New Jersey communities, I took a year-end look at our operations.
Our editors on the ground report positive feedback from people in the community, especially people in public office.
That’s good to know because we in the community news business can be, well, annoying as we press for details, further explanations, and additional comments on stories they may not want to discuss. We can seem more bothersome when a reporter from one paper peppers the official with questions, only to be followed by another reporter from another paper, asking mostly the same questions.
But, as chats with our community newspaper editors suggest, this may be changing. One explanation for that change: Reporters are a vanishing breed, and community leaders are beginning to realize that fact.
After the most recent municipal elections, for example, Samantha Sciarrotta, editor of our Bordentown Current and Lawrence Gazette, received accolades from various candidates and residents in both of the towns her papers cover. They appreciated the community paper being there, now that the dailies don’t cover local elections as thoroughly as they used to.
In Robbinsville the mayoral challenger thanked editor Rob Anthes for his coverage of her campaign, and noted that the Robbinsville Advance was the only local news provider to contact her. Even though she was an underdog in the race against the incumbent, she appreciated the fact that the paper took her seriously.
Anthes also edits the Post in Hamilton Township. According to several school officials, the Post’s coverage of the recent Hamilton school referendum helped it gain approval — the first time in 15 years and just the second time in nearly 30 years that a school referendum has passed.
In Ewing officials at a planning board meeting on the Parkway Town Center development handed out copies of the Ewing Observer to attendees so they could refer to a news story for information on the project. “The paper is a respected community resource,” says Observer editor Bill Sanservino.
In West Windsor and Plainsboro, where Sanservino also edits the bi-weekly WW-P News, the reaction is similar: Appreciation and gratitude to our reporters for the coverage because, as we hear time and again, “no one else is covering our town anymore.”
Dan Aubrey, who in addition to editing U.S. 1’s Preview section also edits the monthly Trenton Downtowner, reports similar feedback from readers in the capital city, many of whom are tired of seeing journalism in their city reduced to a single beat: crime.
A month ago U.S. 1’s Diccon Hyatt reported on Rider University’s contentious plan to “divest” itself from its Westminster Choir College in Princeton. Thomas Simonet, a retired professor at Rider, called Hyatt’s story “one of the most comprehensive stories to appear so far in local media.” He continued:
“There remain many unanswered questions raised by this proposal and many ‘big-picture’ concerns. Ideally, they would get discussed thoroughly in public in the possibly short time remaining before they become moot. Uniquely among local media, U.S. 1 has often demonstrated it has the space and inclination to develop full-blown takeouts on local issues with multiple ramifications. I’d love to see U.S. 1 do a follow-up because I know you’d do it with intelligence and balance.”
Even in Princeton, where there are still two weekly community papers, one online news site, and several blogs devoted to the community, there are now fewer reporters, and they simply cannot keep up with all the public meetings.
What’s happened to all the reporters? Some people have begun to notice and are asking what can be done about it.
Nationally the Free Press Action Fund works to encourage local journalism and oppose media consolidation. Report for America is underwriting the costs of hiring reporters for under-reported communities. And in New Jersey the Civic Info Bill has been introduced in legislature to earmark some of the money realized from the sale of the state’s public broadcasting system for community journalism projects.
In our area the Lawrence Township Community Foundation will bring together residents on Thursday, January 18, to discuss the issue. “In the past few years,” writes the foundation, “it has become more difficult for residents to feel connected to local news.”
In Princeton the university’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering department has an initiative called the Tiger Challenge, in which students meet with community members to define and try to solve “wicked” problems by employing some creative, collaborative thinking. Along with my Community News colleague Sara Hastings, editor of the Princeton Echo, I am currently participating in one such challenge. Its working title is a sign of the times: “Saving Community Journalism.”
I’m hoping that Community News will be not only a beneficiary of some good advice, but also a source. One thing that I hope comes through: Whether we are cranking out print newspapers, e-mail newsletters, online blogs, or some combination of the above, what we are doing really is important.
To one and all, merry Christmas and a happy New Year. To our esteemed president, С Рождеством Христовым!