Initiatives such as Report for America are tackling the crisis of local (and state) journalism, which has seen the rapid depletion of reporting ranks at newspapers and other media across the country. (See for reference the new book “Ghosting the News” by Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post.) Often these efforts to shore up the resources of the hometown press are directed ambitiously at investigative or data-driven work to showcase abusive or neglectful exercise of political or commercial power.
These are worthy efforts to uphold the “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable” tradition of the Fourth Estate. Citizen readers can only hope that alternatives or supplements to the old advertising-based revenue model are found—subscriptions rarely being enough—before advertisers either largely disappear or gain more complete ability to dictate what adjoins their messages. Certainly, on-the-ground assistance is more vital to journalism right now than the kind of studies and symposia that the industry’s foundations have long supported.
I’d only encourage the sleeves-rolled-up saviors of the local press to remember that customers come looking for more than the righting of wrongs. We know they care about sports, shops and eats, among various nearby pastimes. Here’s a checklist of other reporting opportunities:
- Obituaries. The final milestone in a citizen’s life is a great occasion for putting notables past and present in perspective, as well for discovering remarkable neighbors whose deeds were otherwise known only to a few. Paid obits (still a good revenue source for legacy media) can be a good starting point but are rarely written as a journalist would, with the most important details first and foibles included. (They’re also replete with euphemisms for death.)
- Legal notices. Another cash cow for legacy media, they are rarely read and therefore a useful source of leads on genuine news breaks. Business and other license applications are noted here, as well as land or building applications if those aren’t well documented publicly at town hall. The relative significance of each notice is lost in the legalese—that’s for a reporter to develop.
- The courts. Beyond what takes place in live judicial proceedings, the documents filed at the typical courthouse are a gold mine: Civil proceedings, motions and discovery materials can flag “news” well removed from the cases at hand. And do not dismiss divorce and custody matters as tawdry personal affairs—litigants say the damnedest things about newsworthy people.
- Property deed recordings. They can confirm what parcels actually sold for, and sometimes provide clues on hidden owners. Nothing connotes power and influence so much as land.
- Police logs. Beyond the alarming or sometimes ridiculous incidents, there may be patterns that local law-enforcement is unable or unwilling to draw together.
- Campaign-finance documents, now required at all levels and not always catalogued online.
- Meetings of school and town boards are good for more than just quotable exchanges—they can be tip-offs to enterprising stories that aren’t spoon-fed by Public Information Offices.
To be local is to be the chronicler of record for a community, in an era ever more in need of history’s first draft.