Why small towns need advocacy journalists

Sep 26, 2013
Why small towns need advocacy journalists

The following is an opinion piece written by Chris Slater.

National newspapers are national for a reason.

USA Today serves all of the USA...today.

Major metropolitan areas have enough movers-and-shakers to warrant nationwide coverage and attention. Perhaps you’ve heard of them—the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times...the list goes on.

How many of us have heard of the Peoria Journal Star? Or perhaps the Benton County Daily Record? The Curry Coastal Pilot? For somebody not living in these small towns in Illinois, Arkansas or Oregon, these newspaper names probably don’t stand out. But for those living in small towns throughout the nation, the best link to what’s going on in the area is their local newspaper.

Large, national newspapers can feel impersonal. They are not catered to small-town USA. Yes, they give the news, but without much of a local feel. To find out what is happening in your neck of the woods, you need to read the newspaper from your neck of the woods.

There, one is connected to everything. Bake sale on Thursday at the bank? Found out about it in the paper. Late-night bingo at the rec center? Would have missed it if not for the paper. Cousin Joe was in the police blotter? Well, there are some things we maybe wish we didn’t read there...

The local newspaper is the best place to find out what’s going on, from the important to the mundane.

It wouldn’t seem like a small-town newspaper would have a large amount of power. It does. The problem is that most of the newspapers and reporters don’t realize the influence they have in their small town. The word “community” has a nice connotation; close-knit, friendly, everybody-knows-everybody kind of feel. A small-town newspaper is what holds a community together. 

Every town always has a seedy underbelly of sorts. There is something that the residents shake their heads at and wish would go away. Crime. Drugs. Prostitution. Gambling. Crooked politicians. The newspaper can be the gatekeeper for the community and act in a positive light to try and enact change. A small-town newspaper has the power to bring attention to these problems and thus it is their responsibility.

How can they do this? The first and most important step is to have a dedicated staff who care about the town. Sounds simple enough. But it’s not. Anybody can get a job writing for a newspaper. They clock in and clock out, writing a story or two in between. It takes a special kind of person to care about what he or she is doing. A small-town newspaper needs dedicated reporters who will go above and beyond to find the real story.

If the newspaper can’t or won’t be that change, then who will? Bloggers and online message boards are one area in which people can try to bring forth the real news. If the small-town newspaper is just concerned with keeping advertisers happy and not losing that full-page spread from the car dealership, then the community needs to stand up and take action.

In the late 1990s, Matt Drudge was an early pioneer of posting news online. Through his connections, he discovered that Newsweek had declined to publish a story about an alleged improper relationship between then-President Bill Clinton and one of his interns, Monica Lewinsky. Drudge broke the story on his website and the rest is history. Matt Drudge via his Drudge Report is perhaps the most well known example of one man who took matters into his own hand when the traditional news media was not fulfilling its responsibility.

Not everybody can achieve the fame and infamy of Drudge, but everybody can do their part. The traditional newspaper model is the best way to reach the populous and help them. But if they will not help people like they should, somebody will need to stand up.

Hopefully the newspaper industry in small towns across the United States have enough dedicated, hard-working journalists who recognize their duty and responsibility is to help those around them.

Chris Slater is a freelance journalist living in small-town Appalachia. He is not yet where he wants to be in life, but he's working on it. Check out his personal blog.

Photo: The Peoria Journal Star front page

About the author

Copy Editor at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Author of the "30-Something" blog. I mostly tweet about The Simpsons and professional wrestling.

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