Hometown News

I was in another city, staying at a hotel where someone puts copies of the local newspaper on a horizontal surface in the lobby. I opened the hometown paper and I was shocked at how “thin” it was.

Thin is what print media people call a publication that is lean on advertisements, or has little of the stuff you’d want to read, or both. Having worked for numerous publications over the years, I learned to recognize the unique character of each magazine and newspaper by “listening” to the conversation going on between the journalism and the advertisements.

In this newspaper, the conversation was barely a whisper. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in this city, the conversation was complicated, compelling and habit-forming. You wouldn’t read the paper as much as return to favorite sections, columnists, cartoons, colorful inserts from the grocery stores and, when you were feeling desperate, the help-wanted section. I also grew up reading, and eventually writing for, the glossy city magazine whose enigmatic, cautiously anonymous personals were devoured by my parents. Who is looking for what in a relationship, they wanted to know, from whom?

I didn’t see the magazine in the hotel. Instead I found a glossy that was just advertisements, with a few articles that might as well have been advertisements. I closed the “book”–as print journalists call a magazine, and, while fully aware of the many changes that are threatening the end of printed journalism, I couldn’t help but feel troubled.

When you write for a publication, you get to know the people whose “headshot” photos float above the columns. Some are just as crazy, prim, loud (if they write sports) and manic as you’d expect. Others are clearly hiding behind their words. Like most clergy, who have different personalities when alone, and when preaching to their flock, they are grateful for the distance their sermons create between themselves and those who show up, listen and give some money.

I was only briefly on the staff of a publication and, for all the obligations, complications and herd-mentality tedium full-time employment brings, I missed the over-caffienated late nights to meet deadlines, the breezy banter of story-generating meetings (sometimes at lunch, sometimes in a tiny office with a window without a view), the yammering swagger of reporters coming back from the hinterlands with a “story you won’t believe,” and then, that special moment when the book arrives from the printers and all that work suddenly becomes–real.

I can’t remember a moment in my lifetime, or in history, when it wasn’t fashionable to dis the news media. But, like any insider, I object to outsiders dissing what isn’t true when there is too much stuff going on that’s worth dissing. Journalists can be lazy, biased, vengeful, petty and so enamored of their point-of-view that they will avoid, or diminish, what complicates it. But they all know what the truth is, and I’ve never met anyone in print media who let mere human frailty stop them from digging for it, verifying it and writing it so everyone understands.

Yes, they have been wrong. Names are misspelled. Quotes are taken out of context. Sometimes what seems true five minutes before a deadline becomes not-quite-right when the story is read. Retractions, corrections, amendations and “follow-up” articles appear after that, but they are not always read. Hometown news is not one thing that’s over and finished with a news cycle. It’s a string of things that become part of your life.

If you can find that string. I live in a region that is supposed to be covered by our big city newspaper, but isn’t. The local newsweeklies are not as thorough, or as personal, as the local daily paper that arrived on my family’s doorstep every morning. My wife had to search the internet to find out why a pair of helicopters were circling an area about a mile from where we lived–someone walked into traffic and died.

Don’t tell me that the loss of one life is insignificant compared to the terrors and horrors of that get national attention. What is news in your neighborhood defines your character. It is a collection of things you care about, talk about, fight to change, try to stop, laugh about and, if you knew the person who died, feel a loss that you remember later in life, when you may be living elsewhere, but feel the tug on your heart that only the hometown newspaper can bring.

Will we find any of that on the internet? Some of it. But most people are on the internet for reasons that have almost nothing to do with what is happening in their neighborhood. Searching for hometown news–if you can find any–is a thing you do after you’ve done other things.

When I opened that thin newspaper, I recognized one or two people I used to know. Missing where so many others, including

1. The travel editor who, having visited several balmy locales, resolved to wear white trousers for the rest of his life. His vow did not last the winter.

2. The copy editor who introduced me to the music of Bessie Smith.

3. The book editor who took me seriously as a writer and historian, though my published books were genre mysteries.

4. An alcoholic reporter who, in the grand tradition of drunk journalists, spent most of his time in bars, but had an uncanny talent for finding local sources precisely when they were needed.

5. An exasperated editorial page editor who kicked a trashcan across the newsroom and, for reasons I’ll never know, asked me, of all people, if I was aware of the bivalve metaphor. I asked for clarification. “This place,” he said, “is like a clam. The ocean flows through it and the crap stays.”

“If it stays long enough,” I replied, extending the metaphor, “it turns into a pearl.”

He didn’t stay long enough at that newspaper, and neither did I.




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