In an era when “news” is often referred to as “fake news,” and when people in high places demand that reporters be fired for making mistakes, it’s easy for us in the news business to lose track of what we are really all about.
Far from the madding crowd of national politics, there’s another form of news — community news — that so far has not been dismissed as fake and has not become the whipping boy of politicians seeking to whitewash their image. As editorial director of Community News Service, publishers of community newspapers in Hamilton, Robbinsville, Bordentown, Ewing, Lawrence, Hopewell, and West Windsor-Plainsboro, I took a year-end look at our operations and asked our editors on the ground:
How are we doing? And on what do you base your answer?
Pretty well, it turns out, and the finding is based on feedback from people in the community, especially the people in public office.
That’s good to know because we in the community news business are used to getting heart-felt thanks from community members whose personal stories have been presented in our pages. They needed publicity, and we provided it.
But we haven’t always had that same warm and fuzzy feeling from our elected and appointed officials and administrators. To them we in the news business can be, well, annoying as we press for details, further explanations, and additional comments on stories they may not want to discuss. We can seem more bothersome when a reporter from one paper peppers the official with questions, only to be followed by another reporter from another paper, asking mostly the same questions.
But, as chats with our community newspaper editors suggest, this may be changing. One possible reason for that change: Reporters are a vanishing breed, and more appreciated now than ever before.
After the most recent municipal elections, for example, Samantha Sciarrotta, editor of our Bordentown Current and Lawrence Gazette, received accolades from various candidates and residents in both of the towns her papers cover. They appreciated the community paper being there, now that the dailies don’t cover local elections as thoroughly as they used to.
Rob Anthes edits the Post in Hamilton Township. According to several school officials, the Post’s coverage of the recent Hamilton school referendum helped it gain approval — the first time in 15 years and just the second time in nearly 30 years that a school referendum has passed.
In Ewing officials at a planning board meeting on the Parkway Town Center development handed out copies of the Ewing Observer to attendees so they could refer to a news story for information on the project. “The paper is a respected community resource,” says Observer editor Bill Sanservino.
Even in Princeton, where there are still two weekly community papers, one online news site, and several blogs devoted to the community, there are now fewer reporters, and they simply cannot keep up with all the public meetings. A few weeks ago the public-private planning group, Princeton Future, held a Saturday morning meeting on the always vexing issue of parking. About 50 residents — armed with lots of questions and concerns — attended, and just one reporter (from Community News Service’s monthly Princeton Echo).
What’s happened to all the reporters? Some people have begun to notice and are asking what can be done about it.
Nationally the Free Press Action Fund works to encourage local journalism and oppose media consolidation. Report for America is underwriting the costs of hiring reporters for under-reported communities. And in New Jersey the Civic Info Bill has been introduced in legislature to take some of the money realized from the sale of the state’s public broadcasting system and earmark part of it for community journalism projects.
In our circulation area the Lawrence Township Community Foundation will bring together residents for a township-wide meeting on Thursday, January 18, to discuss the issue.
And in Princeton the university’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering program has an ongoing initiative called the Tiger Challenge, in which students meet with community members to define and try to solve “wicked” problems. Along with my Community News colleague Sara Hastings, editor of the Princeton Echo, I am currently participating in one such challenge. Its working title is a sign of the times: “Saving Community Journalism.”
I’m hoping that Community News will be not only a beneficiary of some good advice, but also a source.
Richard K. Rein is the founding editor of U.S. 1 newspaper and the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, and the editorial director of Community News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.