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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 3, 2008
Illustration by Forest Byrd
Detroit, a working class city where news matters, last week hosted the annual convention for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. I was awarded the Golden Quill for outstanding editorial writing. I was honored and humbled to be in a roomful of people who devoted themselves to good journalism and to be among the Golden Dozen chosen from across North America. I gave this speech, which received a standing ovation. I wanted to share it with Enterprise readers who make our weekly labors matter.
When I was a kid, my favorite comic was Superman. Mild-mannered Clark Kent always knew where trouble was because he worked as a reporter for the Daily Planet. He’d jump in the nearest phone booth and emerge with a giant letter “S” on his chest and a cape on his back ready to help someone in need, ready to right wrongs.
I grew up.
I found new heroes among them the framers of our Constitution. One of my touchstones during my 20 years at The Altamont Enterprise a small, independent weekly in Albany County, New York has been this thought of Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson, one of the chief authors of the grand experiment of democracy wrote that in 1787, just about a decade into the experiment that is now in its third century.
So, with newspapers faltering now, what will happen to our government? Would the United States be at war if coverage of the president’s claims of weapons of mass destruction or of 9/11 links to Iraq had been more thorough or critical?
We are all painfully aware that circulation for daily newspapers is falling. We wince each time we learn of another round of layoffs, another foreign bureau shut down, another paper closed. Television and the Internet allow us to learn instantly what is happening on the other side of the world. But the depth and perspective and reliability of newspapers is irreplaceable.
While dailies are struggling, not everyone is aware that circulation for weekly newspapers in the United States is growing. A survey last year by the National Newspaper Association found that 83 percent of adults read a community newspaper each week, up from 81 percent in 2005. According to the 2007 survey, local community papers are the primary source of information by a two-to-one margin over the next most popular medium television. The 2007 findings note that 99 percent of readers read local news, up from 95 percent in 2005; 92 percent read school news, the same as in 2005, and 94 percent read state government news, up from 91 percent in 2005. Just over three-quarters of readers believe their local news coverage is good to excellent.
I believe weekly newspapers are growing in readership because they offer news that can’t be found elsewhere.
While much media attention is given to national and state issues and elections in our country, it is easy to forget that many of the decisions that most affect our everyday lives are made locally. Newspapers, often weeklies, are sometimes the only source for citizens to make informed decisions on those close-to-home issues.
So, while we may not be squeezing into phone booths, and emerging with colorful capes, those of us working for the Weekly Planet are, like Clark Kent, aware of what is happening in our communities. We stay away from the kryptonite of citizen apathy by empowering our readers with knowledge. We use our editorial voices to right wrongs and help those in trouble.
Our paper, like many of yours, covers exclusively local news. We weeklies help democracy work at its roots. Before local elections in the schools and towns we cover, we clearly delineate the issues, ask candidates the tough questions, and let voters make an informed choice.
We do more than just run pictures with the candidates spouting their favorite slogans because we know the issues we’ve covered them year-round, week in and week out.
We write about the budgets that dictate the work that is done by our towns and the programs that are taught in our schools. Because we have reporters at zoning and planning meetings, our readers can find out about the development that is going on in their neighborhood from large subdivisions and new malls to discussions on a single sign. Joyce Webster, publisher of the Coronation Review in Alberta, was named to the Golden Dozen for her editorial on the need to let the elderly age in place rather than shunting them off to the edge of town.
Because they’re informed, citizens can participate in shaping their community.
We cover the crime in our towns, not just the murders or the drug busts, but the shoplifting and the drunk driving, too. Because we look at all the arrest reports, we discover the trends and inform the public. Gisele McKnight, editor of the Kings County Record in New Brunswick wrote convincingly about the disparity of parole in the Canadian justice system. Richard Mostyn, editor of the Yukon News, pointedly asks “What’s a person worth?” as he compares the handling of two missing-person cases one of a 19-year-old aboriginal woman and the other a 35-year-old visitor, who was white.
Our letters pages allow the community to talk to itself. The exchange of ideas exposes problems and leads to solutions.
People come to us with their stories because they trust our reporting. One woman who trusted our paper with her story was abused by a man who also abused the system. We wrote an in-depth series about how he repeatedly made false reports that his ex-wife had committed crimes, tying up family-service and police agencies which were compelled to investigate.
In another series, after the mother of a teenage girl came to us, we detailed the allegations that she was repeatedly raped by her father, yet he was not arrested; enough readers called the district attorney’s office that she finally got her day in court.
Another issue where we’ve seen readers react and make a difference in their governance has been with property valuation. A series of articles detailing badly skewed tax rolls led to enough citizen protest that some towns that hadn’t reassessed for decades finally did so.
Environmental coverage is yet another area where informed citizens can make a difference. After many years of relentless investigation and assiduous reporting on the toxic wastes left by the Army in a largely-abandoned depot in one of our towns, we finally saw some results.
John Hales, managing editor of The Sanpete Messenger in Manti, Utah, was named to the Golden Dozen for his editorial on a rural gas leak that was ignored until he spoke up.
Weekly papers, too, can make a community of strangers. This past year, we wrote about African refugees in our midst that few had been aware of.
It started with a minister who told our reporter, Saranac Hale Spencer, that a group of refugees had joined her congregation in Albany, New York. She followed the thread from there to a memorial service held on the anniversary of the massacre that sent the Banyamulenge, a tribe of Tutsies, fleeing from Africa.
Here, in our midst, were people who had endured unspeakable suffering that few in our community had ever heard of. Saranac listened to their stories and she tracked down experts on that part of Africa to put their plight in perspective.
And, through a great deal of persistence, she told the story of an incredible journey to freedom, a detailed and moving account of a woman who had literally walked across Africa, with children in tow, the war always at her back. She also included an article on programs to help refugees and we ran an editorial, calling people to action. The result was raised consciousness in our community and many offers of help.
The editorial that won the Golden Quill was based on another story by my daughter, Saranac. She wrote about a widow who was forced from her home after the village turned off her water for unpaid bills. Saranac grew up on the old newsroom adage: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Stonewalled by village officials, she worked doggedly to piece the story together and inform the community of what its government had done.
A good newspaper empowers readers by informing them; it also, quite literally, puts the community on the same page. One of my favorite examples of this is a simple one.
We published a story outlining the work that would have to be done to complete a local high-school track after the government funding for the project had run out. One of our readers decided the job should be finished. He owned a bulldozer and he organized a crew to begin work. Others joined in; the track is finished now and is a credit to a proud community.
Weekly newspapers have the power to inform readers, which, in turn, can accomplish something even harder than moving earth moving government.
If newspapers go, the foundation of democracy will, too. We need the research and depth, the accuracy and care that come with newspaper reporting. We need the variety of voices that speak through our pages. We need to stay strong for the sake of democracy.
Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor