A fatal single-engine plane crash in a corn field was the first story I ever covered for a local newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette.
Life and death. That’s the bread and butter of local newspapers. The obituaries are among their most-read sections. What journalists don’t expect is to find their own colleagues in those pages, gunned down in the place where they work, the way five members of the staff of the Capital Gazette were, in Annapolis, Maryland on Thursday.
When events are horrific, as they were in Colorado when I was editor of the Rocky Mountain News, and 12 students and a teacher were killed at Columbine High School, I learned the difference between local and national journalists.
Local reporters don’t get to leave the scene of the tragedy. It’s where they live. What they do matters to their community. And local journalists know it in their bones. It’s what makes their work worth doing.
One of the reasons I loved working in local journalism was that I felt close to the stories I covered. I would meet people I wrote about in the grocery store. Or at a movie theater. There was no getting away from seeing them again, whether I wrote something that might have angered them or something they liked. It’s one of the things that keeps journalists honest.
There’s little fame or glory in covering local news, the way there might be in reporting on national or international events. I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith, the five who died in the Capital Gazette newsroom. But I know many like them. I’ve worked among them for more than three decades, from Michigan to New Mexico, Ontario to Colorado, Hawaii to Washington, D.C.
The Gazette’s editor, Jimmy DeButts, described his fallen colleagues eloquently in a tweet: “Just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays—just a passion for telling stories from our community.” This morning, the newspaper’s surviving reporters and editors put out the paper as always, covering the news of their colleagues’ deaths.
There are thousands across the country doing this daily work, striving to get one more story, one more fact, one more picture to capture the life of their community. They’re the ones who create the front pages memorializing everything from the victory of a local sports team to the devastation of a local flood or fire.
Local journalists and their newspapers play a special role. They help define a community’s character and identity. Coverage in their pages confers status. Recognition. Absence from their pages also sends a painful message, that the lives of some people don’t matter. And while their front pages may be what people remember most, the value of what’s called “agate” type, the small type that lists the times of runners in a race or winners in a contest at a local fair or the list of all of the graduates of a high school, shouldn’t be underestimated.
The saying goes: Names are news. It’s true. People look for the names of their friends and family in their local newspaper. They stay in touch with their successes and sometimes failures through the pages of local newspapers.
I didn’t know any of those who died. But I know people I’m sure are like them. They struggle between the demands of the job and the demands of their family. They can never do enough for either. I don’t know any of those who died or their paper. But I know what it feels like to show up at work to answer the ringing phones with people asking how the paper could have gotten something wrong. I know that it’s rare for the phones to ring with compliments. That’s not the way the world works. And I’m sure that those who died, just like the ones I worked with, were okay with that. They didn’t expect to hear love. But they deserve love. Today especially. Without them, their communities wouldn’t have a story. They wouldn’t have the first draft of their own history.
I don’t know those who died, but I do know their work, like the work of many of my colleagues, was a labor of love. I don’t know the newspaper that was attacked. I never read it. But I do know many others like it, and they, too, today deserve our love. These people and these organizations are not enemies of the people, as our president so dangerously swears. They are the people.