Letter from the editor: ‘That they might be better citizens’

Local newspapers need community support, especially after June’s Capital Gazette shooting

IAN SMAY, Evergreen reporter

As I end my term as the Evergreen’s news editor, there’s one last thing I feel I need to address.

Now more than ever, news media in the country are under the microscope. Distrust in the news has never been higher in this nation. However, it is important for people to support their local newspapers and news outlets.

While I agree we can do a better job in some ways, and like any profession there are those who are purposely or accidentally negligent, the truth is almost no one that works in news intentionally misleads the public, especially on the local level. Those who make up the staffs of these shrinking news sources have a passion for informing the public.

This year, we had a chance to see that dedication in the light of tragedy. The Capital, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, saw its offices intruded by a disgruntled man who was angry with the paper’s coverage of his guilty plea to a criminal harassment charge.

He entered their offices, but not to complain. Instead, he brandished a shotgun.

Five people were shot dead. Four writers and a sales assistant never saw their families again, all because a man was mad they were doing their jobs.

But this did not stop their fellow staff members, who started reporting on Twitter as the shooting happened and composed articles from parking garages before they had even learned the fate of their fellow reporters.

Chase Cook, a reporter at The Capital, tweeted out a thread about the incident the same day, ending it with a defiant message.

“I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper.”

The newspaper’s official Twitter account reaffirmed the message before adding screenshots of what the front page would look like the next day. Of course, the shooting was the top story, and the paper had to print “5 shot dead at the Capital” as its cover story.

But what caught my eye was the opinion section, often the “voice” of a newspaper, where columnists and editorial boards give their views on topics facing their communities.

That day, they left their opinion page blank other than a short message and the names of the dead. The message said they were speechless, but it was the end of the message that caught my eye.

“Tomorrow this page will return to its steady purpose of offering our readers informed opinion about the world around them, that they might be better citizens.”

The ending of that phrase perfectly sums up why true journalists go into the profession. Ask any reporter, other than maybe those who anchor a national nightly newscast, and they will tell you the pay is not high. The work is often thankless, and a number of articles go up without causing a stir.

But the importance of the news cannot be minimized. While we all know some of the great work news media have done on a national level, such as Murrow’s focus on McCarthy and Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War to name a few, some of the most important work has been done on the local level.

Take the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe as an example. Their new executive editor told the team to look into the Boston Archdiocese, possibly the most powerful institution in the city, to investigate whether Cardinal Bernard Law had knowingly put children in the reach of predatory priests. The story and follow-ups they wrote changed the history of the church forever, and it is hard to imagine how many more children would have been harmed on top of the thousands of estimated victims if they had not had the courage to go after one of the most powerful institutions in the world that happened to be in their backyard.

And for those who have problems with opinion columns, may I remind you the Spotlight team was tipped off by a Globe weekend column.

So now more than ever, support your local papers. Write to them with concerns when they misstep, but whether it is the Evergreen or any other local outlet, they must be allowed to survive to keep people informed and hold those in power accountable.