As an owner of five community newspapers in the Houston and Charlotte, N.C., markets, plenty of people took the time last week to reach out after hearing the crushing news of the fatal shootings at a community newspaper in Maryland. Some of the notes were more gracious than you could imagine.
If you missed the story, a man named Jarrod Ramos is suspected of walking into the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, blockading the back door, and opening fire on a newsroom because the newspaper reported a crime Ramos admitted to committing back in 2011. Five people – editors, writers and assistants – died for their unrelenting accuracy.
After hearing from so many of our local readers, and feeling immense gratitude for the people who took the time to offer encouraging words, I’d like to offer some personal perspective.
If you read stories about journalists, you’ll often learn they sat in their bedrooms as children with a pencil and a notepad, pretending to be reporters. Today’s young people will never understand, but working in the press was once an admirable career goal.
I was not one of those people. I spent my youth playing baseball and basketball because I wanted to sign a Lebron James contract with the Lakers.
When those dreams faded with my growth spurt, I turned my attention to sports medicine. If I couldn’t be Lebron James, maybe I could operate on him one day.
And when those dreams faded with the C’s in my biology classes, I turned my attention to the one thing I enjoyed most: Writing. In high school, I was paid $5 per poem because my classmates couldn’t figure out how to rhyme words. My high-school girlfriend couldn’t write her way out of a can of hairspray, so I wrote her papers.
Throughout college, I wrote as often as possible, sending guest columns to local newspapers, writing a weekly column about Alabama football (when Alabama football was absolutely terrible – yes, that actually happened once).
With two weeks left in college and no job offers from the New York Times, I asked my journalism professors if they knew of any job openings. Each of them pointed me toward community newspapers all across the Southeast, and I landed in a tiny town in southeast Alabama with a Toyota Corolla, a pen and a camera.
A few years – and jobs – later, I was given a chance to run my own newsroom. Our small staff of six people largely showed up for work hungover, but after a grease-filled lunch and an afternoon of hustle, we’d publish a great newspaper six days a week. And each night, around 11, we’d walk out of the newsroom broke but full of accomplishment.
I don’t know what drove me to the community newspaper business. I don’t know what brought me back the two times I left. What I do know is that putting out a community newspaper, even in a period when people only give us a courteous glance because they think what we do is “sweet,” can’t be measured in the size of our measly paychecks.
That’s what drove Rob Hiassen, 59, Wendi Winters, 65, Gerald Fischman, 61, John McNamara, 56, and Rebecca Smith, 34, to the office of the Capital Gazette each day. They didn’t cover national politics or the Washington infighting. They covered board meetings and new businesses and tales of children doing really cool things in their community.
They went to work each day to tell stories no one else will tell, and they were just as serious about their work as Dan Rather was when he sat behind an anchor’s desk.
That’s what most people don’t understand. When we come to work each day to tell stories about local development, we think it’s the most important story in this part of the world, and we want readers to know. When we tell stories about students and teachers bettering themselves, we write with fervor and expectancy, because we know that same story won’t have near the impact on social media as it will on the lasting pages of The Leader.
If there’s been any silver lining to the dark day in Annapolis, it’s that our country gave pause to the barrage of social media and regurgitated insta-news, and realized that community newspapers like the Gazette have a role in this nation that we always overlook.
That doesn’t mean the trend will ever change. You and I and the rest of us will continue our migration away from local newspapers because they aren’t as easy to read. Sure, we’ll post our stories to social media, and we’ll make them available online, but our business model is dying fast – and there’s not a person in our company that doesn’t know that already.
That doesn’t mean we still don’t come to work every day in hopes that a new advertiser will realize that an informed community makes for a better community, which makes for a better local business environment. It doesn’t mean that we don’t bust our tails each week to share the value of local, edited information to the new businesses that enter our market each week. If local businesses took a tenth of their marketing budgets and supported local news, papers like ours and the thousands of others in this country could continue telling pure stories about real people who have done really great things in our neighborhoods.
One person sent me a note and asked, “Jonathan, what can we do to help support our local paper?”
We are a free newspaper, so our only income stream is through the advertisers who want to reach the same people who read our content. Next time you’re in a local business, ask them if they read The Leader. Ask them if they know local news is important to their customers. That does more to help than anything.
Meanwhile, let’s keep our priorities straight: Five people died doing a job they loved. They are an example of people who didn’t work for personal prosperity. They worked at a community newspaper because they loved telling stories that matter.