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Don’t trade community journalism for phone-wielding commentators

A wise woman (Joni Mitchell) once sang: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone… they paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

That lyric can be true in regard to a lot of things: health, employment, a favorite burger joint.

I’m going to throw in an American institution as well: The community newspaper.

No, community papers aren’t all gone, yet, but they sure look a lot different from when I started my career in newspapers in 1980. In a mere four decades, community journalism has gone from a robust, respected part of everyday life to an afterthought.

Some will say: “I never respected that old rag that called itself a newspaper.” As a reporter, I heard similar criticisms throughout my career.

But those who protested the loudest read that old rag the most. He checked the obituaries daily and swore at the columnist with whom he disagreed. She wrote letters to the editor and shed a tear over the story about a baby who drowned in a swimming pool across town. They traded sections back and forth on Sundays.

How else does one know when and where Alcoholics Anonymous meets? Or which church is serving cabbage rolls on Wednesday?

And there are the hard news stories. The ones that reporters rush to cover in the middle of the night or in the aftermath of a fire or a tornado. I was in an Illinois newsroom on 9-11. During my career, I have covered a meth lab explosion and a murder-suicide. I’ve covered the death of a sanitation worker who was run over by his own garbage truck. I got to the scene as the coroner was picking up bits of his inner organs and tossing them under the sheet that was covering the man.

I’ve sat at school board meetings until the wee hours of the morning. I’ve covered city council meetings where no fewer than 100 people showed up to speak on a particular issue. I’ve driven back to the newsroom with quotes and figures and percentages banging around in my head, trying to figure out where to begin a story, and how to finish it by deadline.

But being a reporter had its pluses. I loved working with great photographers who captured a story as it was unfolding. I loved newsroom banter with smart, quick-witted people.

Few journalists actually have the luxury of working in a newsroom anymore, let alone with photographers and a gaggle of editors. Reporters are now their own photographers and videographers, working out of their cars or the nearest coffee shop.

Still, newspaper readers love to comment on the misspelled word, or the bad grammar or lack of punctuation. (I’ll insert here that those things also drive me absolutely crazy.)

“The media,” they say, is incompetent.

But, dear reader, in the age of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., etc., you, too, are the media.

When you take that video and post it to Facebook, you are the media. When you tweet your disdain for a political candidate, you are the media. When you post a 200-word diatribe about the latest injustice done to you or your friend, you are the media.

Does your newspaper always “get it right?” No, because reporters are human beings. But those reporters who are out there covering games all over the countryside and sitting in four-hour meetings have been trained to write stories that are not only true, but compelling and without partiality.

I hope we don’t get to the point where community journalism is forever put aside for armchair “reporters” with their fingers on their phones.

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