You’ve seen them portrayed in the jilted, tilted lights of Hollywood. Think Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman chasing down Nixon to save the country from political sleaze in “All the President’s Men.” Think Woodward and Bernstein as journalistic celebrities.
These days, we don’t even need the lights of Tinseltown. Every news story has a story. Every reporter, depending how salacious the headline, grabs a few moments of fame.
Don’t mistake this for a political observation, because it doesn’t matter from which side of the aisle you drink. The stench of news – on TV, tablet and smart phone screens – wreaks of manufactured hysteria.
Of course, we all know scandalous news stories are car wrecks blocking two lanes of traffic. We abhor them, yet we can’t turn away. We have an inherent need to see carnage.
No matter what observers of news tell you, this sick sense is nothing new. From the first days of newspapers, to today’s megaphone of constant tickers, we’ve always wanted to know the worst. Sure, we make room for the touching stories about a boy reunited with his deployed dad, but there’s a reason most journalists have always lived by the creed: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Where news organizations can find blood, they’ll lead every newscast and every front page with the worst of the worst. And that’s because you’ll always read it first.
The difference today, I’d suggest, is that we drink from a firehose of information. If you scroll Twitter, you have a constant source of information, and every Tweet seeks to grab the most attention – the most retweets. And the only way to earn that attention is to shock you more than you were shocked five minutes earlier.
Same goes for TV and internet news. If you walk into major newsrooms across this country – no matter if it’s a major network or a local newspaper filling websites with desperate headlines – you’ll find something in common. Every large newsroom in America has a big screen devoted to telling journalists what headlines and what social media posts have gained the most traction. If a story has been shared 1,000 times, the media outlet will blast the story out again. And again. And again.
That’s not surprising, but it’s only half the story. These days, journalists across the country are actually compensated by how many likes or shares or pageviews their stories earn. So instead of being the first one to be right about a topic, journalists are more motivated to be the first ones to be first. Facts, in many cases, are secondary to fast.
And you wonder why media get the story wrong so many times? You wonder why our airwaves and smart screens have been filled with so much vinegar?
That’s why the past week – both personally and professionally – has been so humbling for me.
If you’re a reader of The Leader (which you are if you’re reading this column), you know that once a year we have a program called Voluntary Pay. Earlier this month, I wrote a letter that we inserted in every edition of our newspaper, and we asked our local readers if they would consider supporting local journalism.
Each day, when the mail arrives, I’ve been greeted by stacks of letters and checks from readers who grabbed a prehistoric checkbook and sent a donation to our little newspaper because they wanted to help support what we try to accomplish every week at The Leader.
The checks, you might imagine, are wonderful. They help us pay for mounting print costs and increasing operating expenses. (For example, we offer health insurance to our employees. In the past three years, those costs have nearly doubled, and every small business owner out there knows the impact that can have on a small shop like ours.)
So yes, I literally get chills each year when our loyal readers decide they want to send some of their hard-earned money to help continue the publication of a local newspaper.
But the checks are only part of it. As in years’ past, many of the envelopes come with short notes from people who donated. More than a few have been verbatim: “The Leader is the only real newspaper left.” Others encourage us to keep up the good fight. Others tell us we’re the only way they know what’s really happening in the community.
Our reporters are not Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford. Our reporters are never part of the story; they neither seek nor find fame through their work reporting local stories.
And maybe that’s why the response to this year’s Voluntary Pay Program has been so touching to me. In a sad sort of way, most of us have become calloused to news that screams about all the evil in this world. We expect, even want, to see news that rakes an administration or a special counsel across the front page. We have been taught, despite our desires, that the only real news left is the type that makes us angry.
At The Leader, that’s not us. Even when we’re faced with a story that could embarrass our community, we make every effort to present the facts and let readers make their own decisions. We don’t mind telling tough stories, and we never shy from them, but our job is to make our neighborhoods better – not get neighbors mad at each other.
So in a day when most news is manufactured hysteria, The Leader remains something different. We tell stories about our schools, our businesses and our recipes. And for some reason, despite our odd notion of being straightforward and without bias, you all have once again chosen to help support our small newspaper.
Each year, I try to find the right words to thank our readers for their immense support, and each year, I lack the vocabulary. So for those who have sent voluntary donations, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Sometimes, it’s good to know people still appreciate local news.