They came from South Bend and Evansville, Ferdinand, and Franklin. They came for a refresher on Indiana’s Open Records Law or to ask about a sticky situation on their beat, for inspiration from a St. Louis photojournalist’s images, and for tips on better use of social media.
Yes, yesterday was the Hoosier State Press Association’s annual gathering. Print news folk from one end of the state to the other convened in Indy for learning opportunities, for the lure of hardware during the awards ceremony, and for the free food.
I know these people because I am these people. I know that some of the sports reporters were up late the night before filing basketball or wrestling stories, that some editors were antsy to get back to the office after the banquet to button up Sunday’s paper or to figure out the page-one centerpiece for Monday’s.
Our paper won some awards, and that’s nice, and feels good. But for every plaque or certificate, there are dozens of stories or photos or headlines or special projects a newspaper does in a year that are also hardware-worthy. Maybe they aren't showy, but they they are important to our subscribers.
We cover our communities, attending county commission and school board meetings. We tag along with cops as they shop for needy kids. We routinely hear stories of heartbreak and of extraordinary courage. We write about drug busts and about celebrities who show up in our towns. We take obituaries and birth announcements. We knit it all together with a pen -- this crazy-quilt fabric of our communities that becomes today’s living history of a place and time.
And the next day we do it all again.
I’m always amused (among other silent reactions) by those who criticize their local newspapers. Yes, we sometimes have typos or fail to catch a headline's incorrect subject-verb agreement, or the competition from the next town got the story before we did, or we missed the fire on County Road 625 East. We hate that, yes.
What we don't say is this: try it.
Try creating a completely new product with a small band of people every day. Start with nothing but white space, then fill every inch, and do it again the next day, and the next, and the next. Do it for 176 years as our paper has. Then talk to me.
Know this: community journalists are not the national media.
Don’t confuse us with those elites. We would be fired if we did nothing but sit on a staff-filled panel and take potshots at public officials and the general public we cover, asking them into our space only to interrupt them when they speak, giving them confused, negative looks because we personally differ with their politics, and take openly editorial stances while playing the role of unbiased reporter on TV.
There have always been editorial and op-ed pages on which to speak out with a point of view. That’s the place for it. But I will say it: I am disgusted with national media and how instead of getting out there and talking to the public – people from every walk of life in this country – and listening to what the people say and reporting it – they judge and bash with what has become routine hate speech, interview the celebrity politicians and each other. They put their spin on what once was proudly considered unbiased news reporting.
I am amazed that a number of average people don't realize you get conservative views on one station and liberal ones on another. I flip channels all the time and think that I am living in two worlds from the judgmental comments on these channels. What happened to representing a variety of points of view instead of only your own personal one?
The elite beat reporters need to silence their own views and let the words of those they cover speak. They need to give voice to people who have opinions other than their own. You can’t distinguish any more at the national level between a reporter and a celebrity pundit.
I listened in shock one day as a prominent TV journalist covering the recent election mentioned that his wife was an attorney representing the interests of one of the two top presidential candidates.
I am disgusted by the panel of cronies the TV outlets traipse in as experts. The same experts every day. Whatever happens, these paid talking heads are paraded out to comment. What happened to asking regular people all over the place what they think? Or if it’s a news-commentary show, bringing in different experts from different places with different viewpoints. Try this: instead of asking a Harvard professor what she thinks, ask an Ivy Tech instructor what he thinks.
There are people outside of the D.C. beltway, New York, and California who have something to say. I don’t understand how national media gets away with how they cover this nation. Or why it’s OK for those people to be bigger shots than the newsmakers.
We who work at small- or medium-sized newspapers can be found in the 4-H cattle barns in July, clarifying a point with school officials at 10 on a Tuesday night after a school board meeting, behind bars interviewing a convicted prisoner about how a local group of citizens changed his life through a ministry.
We listen and are equally polite to the Democrat, Republican and Libertarian candidates vying for seats on the Indiana senate or county council. No eye rolling, no interrupting, no yelling. We let our readers decide who they want in the office not because of our personal opinions, but because of theirs.
One message that resonated at Saturday's conference was that of how the news media as a whole is under attack. The way to address that is to keep doing what we do. Cover our communities with depth and integrity. Work the phones, hit the pavement, talk to the folks.
Don’t confuse your local reporters with the elite national media. The elites could take a lesson from those in the flyover states who are on the ground, writing down a reader's suggested story idea in the frozen-food section of the grocery store, typing in a reader's parents' 60th wedding anniversary write-up, making another deadline, doing what we do. We know the people. We are the people.
We are freedom of speech and the press. We are your local newspaper.