Local Journalism Is More Than Just Telling The News

Commentary by: Dean P. Johnson

An elderly gentleman sat in a bright green, ribbon-woven lawn chair surrounded by several generations of his family: his children, grand children, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren along with many longtime friends and good neighbors.

The gathering was a celebration of his 101st birthday, and I, as a young 19-year old writer for a small, local newspaper, was assigned to write a story about the milestone.

With loud and excited voices, a line of relatives brought up tales of the past of the family man, the true friend, the gracious neighbor, the hard worker, the active community member.

I finally asked the gentleman what could he attribute most to having such a long, productive, and clearly-satisfying life. He leaned over the armrest of the chair, and, with a quiet, nearly inaudible voice, he told me that the most important thing about life was the people around you.

As a freelance writer for a number of local newspapers over the past nearly 40 years, I have reported on issues that have had an immediate and direct effect on a particular community: school boards and town councils talking about taxes and policies, police talking about crime and public safety, town officials talking about zoning changes and utility rates, chambers of commerce talking about maintaining viable businesses, and politicians talking about all of the above. 

I had also been assigned stories that, to some, may seem less paramount:  the dedication of a library named after a beloved educator and civic leader, the opening of a small comic book shop, a fallen tree that knocked out power to a neighborhood, the instillation of a time capsule, community gatherings, food drives, clothing drives, toy drives, as well as a joyous 101st birthday. 

While most of these stories would never make national headlines, they serve their community by bringing necessary information to everyday people to help them make everyday decisions, but it also brings a sense of togetherness, a sense of belonging, a sense of unity.

Hyper-local journalism picks up the quieter voices of society while many larger publications focus on the loud. What impacts us most, what impacts us immediately, is what happens in our own backyards. It is the conversation over a cup of coffee at the diner counter; it is talking over the fence with a neighbor; it is ownership of a place, a time, a community. It impacts how we feel about this place we call our home.

While many folks are currently feeling a sense of powerlessness with massive layoffs, job furloughs, quarantines, and health scares due to the COVID-19 pandemic; deep political polarization; reports of police brutality; immigration uncertainties; and ongoing racial inequalities, local journalism serves to empower its community by gathering resources, services, and information vital to its unique needs. An informed community helps us take care of the people we can actually reach, person to person, making it personal.

Local journalism focuses its attention wholly on its own community, but it doesn’t just report on the news there, it is a living part of the community. It can be found in small office buildings, downtown storefronts, or even living rooms. Publishers, editors, and reporters are neighbors, friends, relatives. Their interests are not just to report about an area, it is to help ensure that area thrives because it is their home, too. 

As renowned journalist Bob Schieffer once said: “I think journalism is a great way to do public service, to have an impact on your community.”

That impact amplifies the quiet voices of neighbors, encourages the hope of a common future, and upholds, lifts, and supports the most important thing in life, as a wise, elderly gentleman once told me, the people around you.

Follow South Jersey provides local journalism which highlights our diverse communities; fosters transparency through robust, localized, and vital reporting that holds leaders and institutions accountable; addresses critical information needs; supports people in navigating civic life; and equips people with the information necessary to partake in effective community engagement. If there is a story or event you think we should cover, please send your tips to news@followsouthjersey.com with “NEWS” in the subject line.