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Oh, boy, did I screw up my first attempt at covering a town council meeting.
It was 1986, and I was spending the summer interning at a weekly newspaper in Nash County called the Spring Hope Enterprise. I had taken newswriting and reporting classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school and served as managing editor of my high school newspaper. But real-world experience was what I needed.
The editor of the Enterprise, Ken Ripley, immediately assigned me to cover a town council meeting. I came, I saw, I thought I conquered. While I got the gist of the proceedings right, I misspelled multiple names, misunderstood a key fact and missed a promising story lead.
It wasn’t just Ken who spotted and corrected my errors. An annoyed town manager called and asked to meet with me. Let’s just say that I never wrote about anyone again without at least checking to make sure I had the name spelled correctly.
I spent the next couple of years working for Ken, off and on, and learned a great deal not only about reporting and editing but also about the critical role that local news organizations play in their communities. (I also started writing a regular column on politics and public policy for the Enterprise in 1986, syndicating it to other papers shortly afterward. You are reading it right now.)
Although I suppose personal experience may explain my continuing affection for local media, you should feel it, too. If you don’t subscribe to your local newspaper, whether in print or in online format, you should. If you don’t listen at least occasionally to news on your local radio station, please do. It is not overstating the case to say that the fate of self-government may hang in the balance.
While there are many problems with today’s media coverage of the president, Congress, the federal courts and national politics, scarcity is not one of them. We are blessed or cursed, as the case may be, with a great number and variety of outlets presenting news, analysis and commentary on national affairs in text, audio, video and multimedia platforms. You can consume highbrow, middlebrow or lowbrow. You can read Left, Right and Center. You can watch Fox, MSNBC, PBS or C-SPAN. You can listen to raging righties, loony lefties and a bewildering array of podcasts from every conceivable ideological position.
When it comes to state and local government, however, news scarcity is very much a problem. As the business model for journalism has changed — we now shop for homes, cars, jobs and other products and services primarily with online tools rather than ads bundled with news — local outlets have struggled to adjust. Readers, listeners and viewers always paid for what they got, even if they didn’t realize it. The fee was embedded in the prices of goods and services.
Covering political disputes, complicated issues and governmental bodies well requires experienced professionals. State and local journalists were never highly paid, but they can’t work for little to nothing.
Some public-service journalism can and will be funded by philanthropy. That’s the avenue I chose when founding Carolina Journal in 1991. Its print edition, website, statewide radio show and news service reach hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians each month. Other nonprofit enterprises cover North Carolina politics and policy as well. They fill in reporting gaps and provide valuable insights. But they don’t produce much in the way of local news.
When reporters aren’t around to cover counties, municipalities and school boards, the public lacks the basic raw material with which to practice self-government. I’m not saying that our governments are full of creeps, cranks and crooks. Most public servants mean well and work hard. But we all need someone looking over our shoulders, checking our premises, asking us hard questions.
According to recent polling, we trust local news outlets more than we do national ones. But unless we accompany that greater trust with greater support, a critically important institution will be lost.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “N.C. Spin,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.