For a dozen years I was a news columnist at the state’s largest newspaper and in the decade prior to that, I was its editor in charge of all local news.
I semi-retired from that company in December and wrote a farewell column expressing gratitude for being able to make a living doing something I loved for more than 40 years.
In that continued spirit, here is my inaugural column for the TAPinto network of local news websites. For me, it is yet another return to the reasons I got into the business to begin with.
One is New Jersey pride. On my novel jackets I don’t pretend to be a New York writer. I’m a Jersey guy. A long time ago, I was a sports columnist at a New York tabloid. The “New York voice” -- that constant critical beat-down of those who entered the arena by those who watched from the sidelines – didn’t suit me well.
As Teddy Roosevelt said in his famous “The Man in the Arena” speech, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,..” Its 109 year-old message is perhaps more relevant now than it was then.
Another reason I became a journalist was to tell the stories of the ordinary people around us, to explore the hardships and triumphs of everyday life. I held no fascination for celebrities or criminals or political stars. It was the stories from the streets I found most interesting. I learned something I could pass on to readers. To me, journalism is most relevant when people can identify in some way, with the subjects of stories.
Relevant. Hang on to that word for a few moments.
In the last couple of years, citizen anxiety over the school superintendent and board was a big deal in my town. All my neighbors knew I was a columnist at the state’s big paper and rightly asked why the paper wasn’t covering it.
It hurt to tell the truth.
“We don’t do that anymore.”
Local news is the greatest casualty of the decade-long media implosion.
In the world of larger circulation New Jersey newspapers and their dot coms, municipal and county news are no longer the bread-and-butter, and it has left their constituents starving for coverage. Some of those media conglomerates now own a majority of weekly papers, and local news in those publications has also taken a hit.
We all know why. Declining revenue. The print business lost classified advertising to the Internet, that infinite vessel of everything free. Bottom lines were balanced by reporter layoffs. But fewer reporters meant less local content, which meant fewer readers, which meant even less revenue. It’s swirling race to the bottom. A freefall of declining relevance.
Who wants a paper, or a website, with nothing in it? I knew it was over when I canceled my subscription to my own paper.
The upside is that while the big guys scrapped local news, they didn’t kill the local appetite for it. My little school board anecdote proves that people not only want to know what is going on around them, they need the media as a partner to set things right.
Taxpayers want to know what their local governments are up to. And when things are going bad, they need the journalistic cavalry to ride in. You know the old Thomas Jefferson adage about newspapers and government:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” It’s as true as ever.
The people at TAPinto understand this and that’s why I’m here. I still believe local news is the foundation of journalism, just as local government is the foundation of democracy.
Now admittedly, stories about local controversies don’t get as many clicks as the internet freak show. Stories of crime, celebrity missteps and social-media shaming get the rubberneckers – and I’m one of them -- but they don’t strengthen the civic muscle and sinew of our society. If anything, they weaken it. In the old days, we called it dumbing-down. And here we are.
And here I am, extending a 40-year journalism career because I believe in the mission of this website, and I believe some people still want to read stories, not lists, and that an authentic New Jersey voice is not snarky or bada-bing or forced coolness, nor does it come from people who moved into Jersey City a couple of minutes ago and say they’re New Yorkers.
Real journalism listens to people, not numbers. The stories are in your towns, and your voices.
We are partners in this regard.
And I’m ready to listen.