Moving on, but not up

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/6/21

Every time anyone my age asks what I do, we step through the same canned interchange.

“I’m a reporter,” I say.

“Oh, no way, you’re on TV?”

“No, a …

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Moving on, but not up

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Posted

Every time anyone my age asks what I do, we step through the same canned interchange.

“I’m a reporter,” I say.

“Oh, no way, you’re on TV?”

“No, a newspaper reporter.”

“Newspaper? People still read those?”

Not nearly as many as ought to, I always think. 

There’s a nationwide crisis embodied in my peers’ banal witticism. Local newspapers — torchbearers of truth, accountability and community engagement — are vanishing.

More than one in five newspapers has closed over the past 15 years, according to a 2020 investigation by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

“Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities,” the report said. “Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable — the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”

Without papers, social media punditry satiates most people’s penchant for news, fueling the proliferation of misinformation. And perhaps as disastrous as viral untruth is a woeful lack of coverage. Imagine what important stories aren’t being told without local reporters to unearth them.

A 2018 study by the News Measures Research Project at Duke University found that local newspapers, despite their waning numbers, still contribute a disproportionate share of all original journalism. From a sample of 16,000 stories across 100 randomly selected communities nationwide, the researchers found “that while local newspapers accounted for roughly 25% of the local media outlets in our sample, they accounted for nearly 50% of the original news stories in our database.”

“The results show, fairly convincingly, that despite the economic hardships that local newspapers have endured, they remain, by far, the most significant providers of journalism in their communities,” the report concluded. “And while there is great hope and expectation that newer, online journalism sources will emerge to compensate for the cutbacks and closures affecting local newspapers, our study has shown that this has yet to take place.”

Without community news, countless critical stories may never have come to light. It’s local, “boots-on-the-ground” reporters who often fell the first domino: 

• A.M. Sheehan and Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling of the Advertiser Democrat, a weekly in Norway, Maine, unveiling deplorable living conditions in federally-funded housing. Their tenacity incited a state investigation.

• Ziva Branstetter and Cary Aspinwall of Tulsa World reporting on a bungled execution in Oklahoma. Their exposé launched a national discussion of the execution process and its ethics.

• Sara Ganim of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, following a tip and breaking the news of a sex scandal at Penn State. Every major news outlet in the country would eventually pick up the story of Jerry Sandusky molesting dozens of boys on campus. Ganim later won a Pulitzer for her work.

Major outlets recognize their efforts are moot without local news. Six years ago, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (not a news source I recommend) offered a rare endorsement for the invaluable local reporters she and other national broadcasters rely on.

“To prep for this show every day, we read a lot of stories from small local newspapers,” she said on her show. “We read a lot of national stuff too, but we really depend on local papers and local news bloggers and reporters for news that is not yet national.”  

A week later, Steve Bouser, longtime columnist at the estimable Southern Pines paper, The Pilot, drew the following conclusion from Maddow’s comments: “All this makes me proud of this business I’ve labored in for so long,” he wrote. “It’s no secret that many newspapers today face daunting challenges. But I wonder (heck, I worry about) who could step in to play the courageous watchdog role so many of them now play if someone were ever to yell ‘Stop the presses!’ for good.”

I’m proud, too — of my tireless peers on the vanguard of our industry’s fight against misinformation, and especially our contributions to the cause at the Chatham News + Record. So it’s with a bevy of emotions that I’ll be leaving the CN+R next week to start a new job at the Raleigh News & Observer.

Even before joining his staff about a year ago, I joked with my editor, Bill Horner III, that I was gunning for Marty Baron’s job (then-executive editor of the Washington Post). But I’ve learned something in my year under Bill’s tutelage: Whatever trajectory my career takes, there’s no occupation more noble than to report for a local newspaper. 

News is an ecosystem. It can’t function without all its constituent parts. Some roles are more humble than others, but none can falter without the whole operation suffering.

So, I’m moving on, but not up. Local papers are not a staging ground for advancement; their work is not inferior. They’re a bastion of truth and the first line of defense against insidious falsehoods. It has been a privilege to work at the Chatham News + Record, one of the finest examples of community journalism in this state. I’m excited to keep up the fine fight in a new capacity at the N&O, and I hope you’ll follow my byline there. But for Chathamites, there’s no supplanting the News + Record. 

I’m preaching to the choir here — I doubt you’d be reading this article if not for your commitment to supporting local news. But I hope you’ll spread the mantra: Society has not evolved beyond the need for newspapers. We’ll keep adapting to changes in technology and evanescent attention spans. But the essence of what we do — the fervent dispensation of important truth, with the fullest context and objectivity we can manage — will not change. It cannot change. The vivacity and vigor of our communities are indelibly linked to the vitality of local journalism. 

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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  • Taylortroutman

    We will miss you, Lars. Thank you for all your great work. And best in your new endeavor. Your future is bright!

    Wednesday, October 6 Report this