Why we need local news publications and enough reporters to cover things

A cop shot a kid at a high school about five minutes away from my office after the kid stabbed the cop. While rumors were flying everywhere, the local newspaper was relying on quotes a media outlet 100 miles away grabbed from Facebook posts.

Via the Oshkosh Northwestern:

Senior Dakota Meisel told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a Facebook message the lockdown was announced around 9:10 a.m. at the beginning of the school’s second period.

“I heard people yelling and running, and I heard a bang but not sure what the bang was,” he said.

Meisel said a teacher came into the classroom looking nervous and told the students to get away from the windows and get into lockdown mode just before the lockdown was announced. Meisel said the students were scared.

“We all got into the part of the room, closed all the doors, turned off the lights, and sat in the back of the class room quiet and we contacted parents and siblings, and waited until told what to do,” he said.

This should clearly illustrate why we are all in trouble if Gannett and Gatehouse and whatever other hedge fund chuckleheads continue to buy every newspaper they can get their little cloven hooves on and strip them out for parts.

Your right to know things is limited in large measure by the number of people who are paid a living wage to go out and find things out that you want to know. When you don’t have strong, active, engaged journalists with boots on the ground in your area, even if you still have a newspaper that supposedly serves you, this is what you get:

Josh, an Oshkosh West senior, told the Journal Sentinel he heard the gunshots.

“I was walking in the hall, and a teacher shoved me into a classroom, and we started barricading the doors, and we all huddled in the corner, and there were gunshots,” he said.

Chloe, an Oshkosh West sophomore, told the Journal Sentinel she first heard people yelling in a hallway.

“My teacher ran in the hallway to try and see what was going on. After she heard the people yelling and people were running through the hall, she shut all the doors and turned the lights off. After that an announcement came on that we were going into a lockdown.”

OK, how in the hell is the MILWAUKEE Journal Sentinel getting these quotes from people who aren’t even in the same AREA CODE as that newspaper while the OSHKOSH Northwestern isn’t? Even more, it dawned on me that I’m reading a newspaper that is quoting ANOTHER newspaper, that is quoting sources who only gave their first names to whatever journalist they somehow reached.

How is it that we’ve gone from “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” to this?

 

Also, I’m trying to imagine how my old managing editors, Cliff Behnke and George Kennedy, would react if I did this instead of hauling my ass down to the scene and digging out everything I could before I published a word.

I’m guessing it would be like this:

(NOTE: To be fair to the Northwestern staff, the story continued to grow and improve throughout the day. To also be fair, TV stations from GREEN BAY, about an hour away, were kicking the paper’s ass throughout the day on this story. To be even more fair, my kid had more information on this situation at the end of the day than the Northwestern did and she doesn’t even GO to that school… Good grief.)

The larger point isn’t that things were better in the olden days where we could smoke in the newsroom and people wore press passes in their hat bands. The point is that we have several serious problems that become clear when we have something exploding in an area that used to have strong local media and now are operating like the outpost in “Dances With Wolves.”

LIMITED RESOURCES: When you see these mergers and buyouts and other things taking place at various media outlets, they are often couched in terms of “shedding” jobs or “rightsizing” an organization. The idea is that with fewer people come fewer salaries, which means more profit for whoever owns the publication.

That sounds great, in theory, until you realize that this undermines the primary value of the newspaper: People who can get crucial information for a paying audience.

When you have a staff of five photographers and cut it down to one, you now lack the ability to photograph multiple things at multiple locations. When you “thin the herd” of reporters so that one journalist is covering multiple beats, you lose the opportunity to develop connections (more on that later) and to have the reporter fully immerse himself or herself in an important single area of information.

Even more, you find that by doing more with less, you burn the reporters to a crisp and thus limit their effectiveness in these kinds of situations. To do this job right, you need to pay for people to do it well and build a staff that is robust enough to cover an area effectively.

LIMITED EXPERIENCE: Various publications I know have recently undergone “buyouts” and “golden handshakes” for reporters who are older or nearing retirement. The idea is often, “Hey, I can buy three fresh-out-of-J-school kids for the cost of this old dude who has been taking up breathable air in this newsroom for the past 30 years!”

True, but you also get what you pay for.

Veteran reporters earn their keep because they have experience and knowledge. They know where to go to get the information that people most want to know first. They know what makes for a smart move and what makes for a dumb one, in most cases, because they’ve made both of them a dozen times and seen the results.

This is why certain reporters in various fields always seem to get the story before anyone else does: They are “the person” to whom everyone goes when they want to get something covered.

These experienced journalists know where the bodies are buried. They have a bank roll of favors built up from years of interactions that they can call in when they need to. They also have created trusting relationships with people who are more willing to tell them something than they are to tell anyone else about it.

This leads to the most important point…

LIMITED CONNECTIONS: It’s not who you are. It’s who you know.

The more time you spend some place and the more time you spend interacting with people who matter in some way to you, the more likely you are to develop important connections and relationships. This is true in every aspect of life.

My folks have lived in the same general area for their entire lives and that shows when it comes to getting things done. When I needed a truck to get moved out of my dorm one year and I forgot to get a U-Haul, my dad “had a guy” who helped out. When I wanted to buy a classic Mustang, but wasn’t sure if the car was up to par, Dad “had a guy” who ran a garage and put the car through the paces. Mom and Dad knew so many people in that area, that they always had a guy or a gal who knew something I needed to know. To say they are connected to the area would be a massive understatement.

Journalists who spend enough time on a beat or with an organization develop relationships with sources in key places, too. These connections can make or break a reporter and also make the difference between getting a story and not getting a story. In some cases, a source will call a reporter when something important like the incident at Oshkosh West happens and tip off the reporter about the situation. This only happens after years of trust-building interactions between the source and the reporter.

People I worked with had folks at schools, courts, police stations, government buildings and more who were able to give them the inside story when they needed something. (I wasn’t a veteran reporter in any stretch of the definition, but after covering enough late-night disasters, I got to know the deputy coroners and the secretary at the police station well enough to get a little help here and there.)

The point is, without these kinds of connections, reporters have about as much luck in finding crucial information quickly as a lost 4-year-old has of finding his mom at Wal-Mart during Black Friday. It’s a random lottery of luck at best and that doesn’t cut it for an audience that can find other sources for information.

 

One thought on “Why we need local news publications and enough reporters to cover things

  1. Niki Carroll says:

    👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 Yes yes and yes! Absolute standing O for everything you have outlined here!!

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