I love newspapers. I read the NY Times and scan the Washington Post daily, but what I really like to do is find a small-town newspaper and just scroll through and see what is happening. I find it reassuring.
I especially like reading the opinion and editorial pages. It’s like walking into a coffee shop and over hearing the locals talk about what is important to them. Turns out these rarely are the things shouted at us from talking heads on TV. More likely, though, they are things that I have shared experience of, regardless of geographic location.
Watertown Daily Times
I first came to appreciate the importance and influence of a small-town newspaper reading the Watertown (Wisconsin) Daily Times. Founded in the 1800s, it had served the city of Watertown as its paper of record consistently and well.
With the advent of the internet, the Times, like so many similar publications, was unable to sustain itself and got gobbled up into a multi-media corporation that has little or no interest in the local community. When it went, it was like losing a family member.
Still, it publishes online, and although not the journalism I remember, it continues to provide a forum for the local news to be shared.
I felt so disconnected this past week, what with the intensity of grief and loss at the massacre in Uvalde followed by the incessant haranguing of elected officials and talking heads opining on why things should change but never would, I took refuge in reading what was going on at the local level. It proved to be both reassuring and restorative.
I randomly picked papers from across the country. No rhyme or reason particularly, but I did want to select from smaller communities. This turned up papers from Bangor, ME, Dalton, GA, Watertown, WI, Fargo, ND and Uvalde, TX.
Journalism is Alive and Well
What I learned in scrolling through these papers is that journalism is alive and well, just different. Coverage of local issues includes races for city council and school board. Weather is more than just temperature and humidity; it includes the impact on local farmers and fisheries. Obituaries mark the official passing of community members and club announcements provide reassurance that life goes on in spite of grief and loss. Local sports teams at all levels are covered with passion and give athletes their 15 minutes of fame.
Based on the articles, these communities struggle with budget issues (never enough) and crime. They are finding ways to emerge from the pandemic, and are cautiously moving forward. Old businesses are closing and new businesses are starting up. Adapting to change, while not specifically identified as such, seems to be a highly developed skill set in each of these communities.
While regional differences exist, there is consensus among each of these papers that what happens in their community is important and it deserves coverage by journalists, not just neighbors with opinions. There also is evidence that these papers have found ways to survive and continue to provide their services as a community resource.
Coverage of the day-to-day happenings really isn’t so different between these communities. It does change in intensity, especially when something like the horror of what happened in Uvalde becomes known. What seems to be true is that we share a certain humanity.
For folks in Uvalde, the Leader-News covered the shootings, wrote editorials about school safety and gun violence, and discussed the response to the shootings. Same as the major news did. But the Leader-News also covered Booster Club scholarships, primary run-offs, the Honey Queen pageant return, and a utility assistance plan for city residents who are unable to pay their bills.
For folks in Bangor, gardening tips shared the coverage of the carnage in Texas, along with 10 places to hike with your dog, and the good news that a free community college plan took effect covering costs for students to attend.
The Watertown Daily Times now covers more than just Watertown. They noted several important changes in city and town governments, along with the Chamber of Commerce inviting applications to their leadership conference. Graduations from public and private schools were noted as well as plans for Memorial Day celebrations.
Folks in Dalton found information on the Low Country Boil that was happening along with spotlighting a young reader who has been a frequent visitor to the local library. Acknowledging that politics continues to divide people, the editorial pages also noted that the return of local farmer’s markets would be a welcome thing and everybody would benefit from the wonderful produce.
Readers in Fargo also read about the shootings in Uvalde and how the President was responding. And, they read with home town pride about former Miss North Dakota’s graduation from Harvard Law School. They also read about local shootings and traffic fatalities along with reminders on what is needed for early voting, which begins this week.
Vulnerable but Steady
For me, this sampling of life around the country eases some of my worry. People are going about their lives as best they can, even when those lives are disrupted by something as dramatic and violent as the carnage in Uvalde. The outpouring of love and concern is reassuring, but will be brief.
The truth is that this could happen in any of our communities. We are all vulnerable, and always have been. What is also true is that despite our fears and righteous outrage, somehow we keep on living.
As Craig Garnett, editor and publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News noted in his May 29, 2022 editorial,
When the reporters and cameramen finally pack their Pelican cases and move on, we will be left to pick up the pieces of a shattered community. Lives placed on hold for funerals and visits to the wounded will fill our days. But a halting healing will surely begin. A large part of that process is searching for answers.
Why Uvalde? We are not bad people. Even with the partisan rancor that has cleaved our nation, our residents have always been ready to help others without regard to politics.
The sad truth is that none of that matters. The residents of Columbine, Sandy Hook and Santa Fe could make the same claims. All it takes is one case of mental illness to add an otherwise peaceful community to the growing list of school massacres.
While I would disagree with Mr. Garnett’s assertion that the massacre was due to mental illness, I am aligned with the message that a halting healing will surely begin. And you will read about it in your local paper.