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Notes from the Underground: Riposte

A local news writer on why big city journalism isn't always the best kind

By Cari Gervin - May 25, 2005

[Editor's Note: The following essay was submitted in response to Paul Menchaca's essay, "Notes from the Underground."]

* * * * *

OK, I have a confession to make. It's embarrassing and humiliating. It's something in my past about which I am still completely ashamed.

I used to hate local news.

I know this isn't quite the deep dark secret you may have imagined. But in my mind, it's significant because, well—I'm a local reporter.

Growing up, I thought local news was unimportant. I couldn't understand why my local paper had such abbreviated coverage of national and international events. Who cared about the school board or the city council? I wanted to know what was happening in New York, in Moscow, in Japan.

Now I feel almost exactly the opposite. After almost a year reporting at weekly community paper, and several years freelancing for a small public radio station, I have seen that most people care more about local news than anything else. Their children are affected by the school board's decisions. Their property tax rate is dependent on the city council or county commission. What happens in their communities affects my readers' lives now.

A few months ago, a doctor opened a new medical clinic just down the street from my office. It is an ambitious project in a small rural county. He has dreams of it becoming the next Mayo Clinic. But when I profiled his new business, I learned something else. He wanted to build a cancer treatment center but faced opposition from other local hospitals.

You have to understand, in rural Georgia, "local" can mean an hour or two away, so anyone in the area has to drive over an hour for radiation therapy. For patients who are sick, this can understandably be a problem. So I wrote an article detailing the proposed cancer clinic and the reasons why hospitals an hour and a half away were fighting against it. What it really comes down to, like most things, is money: Will millions of dollars go to this guy or that guy?

But for some of my readers, it was a matter of life and death. I got painful messages from people had cancer, from people who were in remission, from people whose family members had died. "I spent last summer driving my wife back and forth to Athens for treatment," one man said on my voicemail, his voice breaking. "When someone is dying, you don't want to waste your time driving her to the hospital an hour away. You don't want to lose that time with them when it is all you have left. We need this clinic here. Who do I call to protest this?"

I called him back and told him to contact the doctor who wanted to build the clinic. He, like scores of other people, sent letters to the hospitals opposing the projects. Just a few weeks ago, they dropped their resistance. The cancer clinic is now finalizing its building plans. I have no pretension that I was instrumental in this process. I informed people about something in their community. They acted. Now they will have radiation therapy just a few miles from home. Chances are, the clinic would have gotten built eventually. But the community response almost certainly accelerated the groundbreaking, now just days away.

Was this a national story? No. Should it have been in nearby dailies like The Macon Telegraph or The Atlanta Journal-Constitution? Probably not. But did it matter a lot to a tri-county community of around 25,000 people, even if our paper's circulation is only 6,000? Yes.

It's funny, because in high school, I was the editor of my high school paper and I would often rant about the lack of international news in the paper. But I also cared about digging into the administration's wheeling and dealings—and what was that, if not extremely local news? I started college with aspirations of a magazine career (Willie Morris was from my mother's hometown, after all) but soon drifted into the world of academic writing. When I realized several years later, after dropping out of an English Ph.D. program, that I wanted to be reporter, I had no place to start but at the local level.

But by that time, having lived in a small college town for a few years, I had realized that the actions of the local government and the university affected everyone. It's a lot easier to notice in a small place, I guess—not just big things like a smoking ban, but little ones, like neighborhood efforts to get speed humps and bike lanes put in the roads. (After your cat gets run over twice, like mine did, you really notice speed humps.)

Still, it was hard. After graduating from Yale when the economy was still good, I felt like maybe I had made a mistake by moving back South, by going to grad school. I should have applied for more internships, I should have taken that New York publishing job back in 1998. My fellow English majors were working at The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and NPR. I was freelancing stories for minimum wage. That's what happens when you don't know what you want to do with your life at 21.

But now I'm glad I didn't get an elite media job straight out of college. I think what I do is just as important, even if only 6,000 people (at most) are reading my stories. And I don't really have any desire to ever have an elite media job. I want to work for a bigger paper one day, but I want to stay on the metro desk. I want to stay in the South.

I know, it sounds hard to believe if you live in New York, that people would choose to not be a part of it. I know New York is the greatest place in the world, the center of the known universe and the only place with media jobs that matter, except for possibly D.C. and L.A. It has art and music and culture and great restaurants and sparkly sidewalks. I love New York, I do. But there is a world outside of the city. (My sister moved there three years ago and even she keeps forgetting it, except for Red Sox scores.)

There are journalists out there who choose to cover community news not because they can't get a job at a bigger paper or solely as a stepping-stone to better things. They choose to stay in other parts of the country because they like their communities, because they are close to their families, because they want to make their towns and cities better. I might be impossibly idealistic, but I think the majority of journalists in the country working at smaller papers in smaller places feel the same way I do—and even many journalists working the metro beat in New York. I—we—cover news that matters to the people that read it.

Community news is hardly the purgatory of the news world. It's fun. It's not quite as stressful. (I'm lucky—my office is on a lake.) I cover a three-county region in Middle Georgia. There are beauty pageants and cattle shows and all kinds of things that will never make Page Six. Sure, it's easy to make fun of high school students who get really excited about their prize steer—but some of those kids go on to keep Morton's in business.

Working for a community newspaper in a small town, it is easy to see the nuances in people's beliefs. The "red state" citizens about whom I report defy simple stereotypes. Most people I have met do take their Christian faith quite seriously. Bush/Cheney stickers are common sight on cars. But I have also seen an old pick-up truck with a Jesus sticker and a NRA sticker in the window and a Kerry/Edwards sticker on the bumper. The American public is much more complicated than David Brooks or any other number of pundits would have us believe.

My editor, for example—he listens to Rush Limbaugh at work, like most of the paper's staff. He runs press releases submitted by the local GOP in the paper. The sheriff is one of his best friends. But our paper prints editorials from conservatives and liberals. My editor is critical of whomever he feels is mucking things up, regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats. He is balanced. If the local Democratic Party was organized enough to submit press releases, I know he would run them too.

If we were not covering the government's actions, citizens would be left in the dark. No one would know that their taxes were going up until they got the bill—and even then, they might not know why. No one would know the truth about the county's decision to sell the hospital—people would only hear rumors and innuendo, most of which would probably be wrong.

Most important, I think, community newspapers give a voice to the other side of the story. When one county I cover decided to expand its airport, I presented its side of the story—more planes equals more taxes equals more money in the county's general fund. The federal and state governments were funding almost the entire $6 million project, a fact I emphasized so that no one would think the county was wasting its taxpayers' money. But the expansion also compelled several families to leave their homes. FAA regulations required that the county condemn several parcels of land next to the airport. These residents were not happy about being forced to leave land that they had lived on for decades.

If you had only talked to the county manager, you never would have known that—he said they were all "tickled pink" about getting federal funds to buy new houses. In the county's view, a brand new manufactured home was much nicer than the doublewide trailers in which some of the families had lived for 20 years. A new home was better than their memories and sentiments.

The county, in short, had taken the attitude that national media sometimes takes—if it doesn't fit into our targeted demographic, we don't care about it. If it won't bring us money, it doesn't matter. The owner of doublewide trailer pays few property taxes, while the owner of a multi-million dollar home on the lake with a Cessna parked at the airport pays a lot of taxes—which, in turn, pays for the education of the poorer family's children. But in community news, everyone matters. The stories of people who live in trailers is as important as the doings of Mercer Reynolds, President Bush's reelection campaign finance chairman who lives just down the road from my office in an expensive gated community.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that many newspapers are expanding their community news coverage. People want to read about their neighbors, their kids, their friends and co-workers. Large dailies have started regional sections and inserts that target their readers and focus on neighborhoods and suburbs. Some smaller community papers have expanded (my paper, for example, has gone from a "shopper" to a three-section weekly). I think this is a good thing—and that the future of the newspaper industry possibly depends on local news. You can go online and find out what's happening in Afghanistan or Washington. But you can't find out why your county commissioner resigned.

I have just accepted a job at my hometown local paper (now the combined product of what had been two distinct papers). I will be covering community news, for several new weekly neighborhood sections covering all the things I scorned back in high school. And you know what? I can't wait.

Cari Gervin has been a reporter at the Lake Oconee News in Eatonton, Ga., since 2004 and will start work at the Chattanooga Times Free Press next week. She previously worked for WUGA, the University of Georgia's public radio station.



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