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In support of local news

Last spring I attended a conference on social media, and one of the speakers on a panel declared local news to be dead. One of the panelists responded by saying it was a local newspaper (The Record) that uncovered Gov. Chris Christie’s administration being tied to the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge a year ago (commonly referred to as Bridgegate).

The original speaker poo-pooed the story because it was New Jersey, an extension of New York. It doesn’t count.

It seems to have become common practice to dump all over local news. Case in point was an article from earlier this summer that was critical of “hyperlocal” because of its failures though it still has supporters. Part of the story was Jim Brady’s new project in Philadelphia, where he has gone since the closure of Project Thunderdome from Digital First Media. Among the things it picks on are TBD in Washington, which isn’t a fair point since TBD was never hyperlocal nor was it given a chance to succeed.

The article also picks on Patch, which is a fair criticism, but also mentions Backfence. Not familiar with Backfence? It’s because it shutdown in 2007 and it was a project focused on citizen journalism, the buzzword for hyperlocal before hyperlocal. I know about Backfence because it was included in my graduate school thesis in 2006 on citizen journalism. It was an early project, which means there were things to learn here. Just like there are lessons to learn from Patch.

But that fails to highlight how there are many local news websites that are doing just fine. I worked at one in Connecticut, and one of the oldest is in my backyard here in New Jersey. There also are franchises of local news websites in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Look beyond the tri-state area and you’re going to find a lot of local news websites across the country thriving.

Local news is struggling in some ways, no doubt. A recent PEW study outlined the shifting in how many people are covering the statehouse. We still hear about layoffs across the country, including at local news outlets. Some local outlets have trouble shifting from traditional distribution methods (ie printed product), but it isn’t always because they are resistant to change. Often they do not have the resources.

But we should be concerned about local news rather than declaring it dead. It’s an important instrument for you to learn what’s happening in your neighborhood. But it’s also these local news outlets that will stay with a story when the national media is gone.

I’ve seen someone say “what happens when the national media leaves Ferguson?” several times on one of my social media streams. It’s not just friends but also others who work in journalism. What happens is the local media will continue to cover the story, just like the local media always does when the national media leaves.

Hurricane Sandy was a national story and still gets some national press two years later, but it’s the local press that writes the stories about the storms effects constantly. My colleagues are sharing the stories of people who are still struggling two years after the storm. Remember the story about the Sandy Hook gunman that grabbed national headlines? It originated in the Hartford Courant, aka the local press. Bridgegate grabbed national attention, but it’s the New Jersey and New York outlets that are on top of every movement. In 2009, a group of Millburn High School students came under fire for a hazing incident that grabbed national headlines. When the national press was gone, it was the local news outlets (including myself) that followed the story, including what happened the following first day of school.

Plus those stories that evoke dramatic emotion from you? Most often they are covered by a local news outlet first before a national news outlet (or even your local news) picks it up.

The thing about today’s world of media is that you can check in on news anywhere in this country (or the world too) at any time. With a click of your mouse, you can check to see what is happening in the St. Louis area (where Ferguson is located) or what’s happening where you grew up (I don’t do this because my mother tells me more news from home than I could consume online).

But without local news, you wouldn’t be able to check in on those stories or what’s happening in your hometown. We wouldn’t have stories like the Courant’s profile of the Sandy Hook gunman. Those stories take time, local sources and local knowledge. It’s your local press that’s going to deliver on that for you.

I’m not going to tell you to go buy your local newspaper because I don’t buy the local newspaper either. But I do check my local news online. If you want to know what’s happening, check out your local news site.

What are you reading?

I’ve been reading a lot in the last few months. I would say I’m averaging 1.5 books per week, which may be lowballing it. There are weekends I read a whole book. Reading has been a bit of a stress reducer for me in the months since I learned I was being laid off along with some ongoing personal things happening with my family.

I have found, though, that I am running out of suggestions of books to read and having a hard time really finding something I want to read next (though I have three books I will be taking with me on vacation next week). I figure a lot of people run into the same problem and thought opening up a discussion here would benefit not only me but others. If this works out well, we’ll make this a regular feature here.

Yesterday I finished “The Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline, who I didn’t realize until I read her bio after I finished the book lives in Montclair, N.J. That’s right near me and is a hotbed for a lot of writers. I ate up this book because I wanted to know what would happen next. There are moments when you will be aghast at what happens to the main character. Even when she finds happiness, heartbreak follows.

I just started “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, and I am too early in the book to really have an opinion about it. But I already like the characters.

I also have “The Goldfinch” hanging over my head. I started this months ago and have struggled getting through it, unlike some people who have told me they couldn’t put the book down. I found in some sections I couldn’t put down the book, but the book is probably several hundred pages too long. I am two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through with the book and got so bored I set it aside to read other things. I haven’t come back to it yet, though I should.

What are you reading or planning to read? Post about it in the comments.

The Newseum tweeted the blow infographic about the First Amendment and how well Americans know it.

I always find it interesting how people respond to the First Amendment because it’s not always correct.

I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. The story is full of jargon and words people wouldn’t use in every day language. It could be a complicated environmental story or something about an upgrade in technology and my eyes start to glaze over because often there are phrases I won’t understand unless I’m an expert in the field.

Maybe the reporter didn’t ask enough questions to know what they were writing about. I fell into that trap more than once as a young reporter, especially when I had to write about Connecticut’s old affordable housing law. I had someone tell me to stop faking it and ask enough questions so I understood what I was writing about.

There’s another trap, though, and that’s writing too much about a certain topic. If you spend all your time covering cops and fires, you know their lingo. If you cover politics, there’s jargon only lawmakers and politicians use. You spend enough time around any of them and don’t check yourself, the lingo can end up in your stories.

Of course there also are the people who want to make themselves look smart by using all the jargon.

But as a reader it’s frustrating because this isn’t how they talk. I get frustrated because I want to take a red pen and change the words to something my mother would use.

And that’s the key here in breaking the habit of writing inside baseball (we have our own jargon in journalism too) and start writing how most people speak: How would you tell Mom this story?

I had a college professor who often talked about telling Mom the story. We want to write the stories we’d sit down and tell our moms about at the kitchen table. But we also want to write the stories in the same way of how we’d tell our mothers those stories.

Simplifying and breaking through the jargon doesn’t mean we can’t do something special with our stories. We can still write clever ledes. Just don’t write over your readers’ heads and write things in plain terms they will understand.

Also remember this: If you can’t explain the story to your mom, you don’t know the story.

One of my most embarrassing (in a good way) moments in journalism was because I asked a simple question in late November 2001. “Are there any plans to honor the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?”

“Oh, my, I forgot. I’ll let you know,” my VFW contact told me. It wasn’t a surprise since we were still in a new world following the Sept. 11 attacks. People’s minds were elsewhere.

A day or two later he called me back that they were planning a ceremony on one of Westport’s beaches, and it was at that ceremony that I felt a little embarrassed.

My contact was talking to the crowd that was gathered there and specifically thanked me for making the whole thing possible. If I hadn’t called him and asked, they wouldn’t have done anything to honor the anniversary.

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day (I covered the 60th anniversary memorial in Westport too), and it made me think of all of the veterans I’ve met throughout my career, especially those that fought in World War II. They never glamorized war, but they felt it was important to tell their stories. They were stories that would inspire you — the things they sacrificed to go fight to defend our rights and the lives they led once the war was over.

And I felt it was important to tell their stories too. These are men and women who are my generation’s grandparents, which means we’re coming to a time when they won’t be here to tell their stories any more. All that will remain are our memories of them, not their voices to tell us their memories.

That’s how journalism is a living history. We’re here to amplify these stories, remind people of what happened and teach the younger generations our history. This is where we came from and how today’s world was formed. And today’s technology allows us to be able to create things — like video recollections of veterans — that will live forever.

We really should do more of these kind of projects to help us all to remember and to learn. It’s often said journalism is the first rough draft of history, but it’s really more than a first rough draft. It is our history, our living history, as we tell these people’s stories.

Update: The Wire did a review of how we’re remembering D-Day through veteran stories and how the media in 1944 covered the events.

“The name of the site is WestportNow, not WestportLater.”

That’s something my boss at that time would say to me several times. It was 2005 and I had made the switch from newspaper reporter to web-only reporter, and Gordon Joseloff often would tell me the strength of working on the web was we could be immediate. It was what we all call “real-time news” today.

Gordon was tough. He was old-school and wanted everything a specific way, whether it was having a story up quickly about something that happened in town or making sure my copy was clean (and we often had grammar debates). But he also was respectful, and that made me want to do my best. It’s why I showed up to cover meetings after my night classes for grad school or made sure a story was filed almost immediately after a vote.

A lot has been made about “tough” editors in the days since Jill Abramson was dismissed from the New York Times. People are recalling the editors who made them do ridiculous things, saying those editors made them better at their job. But there’s also a theme to most of those editors: They were bullies and jerks to the reporters.

Then Dean Baquet, who replaced Abramson as the Times editor, basically said we should stop worshiping the nasty editors. It’s something others and I have been thinking.

I’ve had editors who people would describe as “tough.” One of my first editors would edit my copy by hand and pass it back to me and tell me to put in the corrections. A friend, who had been a copy editor, reviewed these things many times and said this boss was being ridiculous with 75 percent of her editing. Plus that editor never did anything to build you back up after she tore you down.

Another editor, who some would say is tough, would make me do ridiculous things. In my first weeks on the job she was unhappy with how the police department allegedly held back a story (they had not). But who was the one who had to make the call to the chief? I felt like the loud conversation (I don’t want to call it a fight) resulted in setting back my relationship with the police for a few weeks. She also tried to deny me the right to eat a meal after I had been on the run for 3/4 of the day. Her boss stepped in and told her she couldn’t deny people lunch. Her treatment almost made me leave journalism.

I look back at those editors, who seemed to do things just to toy with people, not as the ones who shaped me to become the journalist I am. It would be people like Gordon, who was a mentor before I even worked for him. I also had editors I’d ask questions about a story because they always treated me fairly, even if they were tough. And that always made me want to work harder. It got to the point where one such editor would let me leave before he edited my copy. “Your stuff is always good. You can leave.”

And those editors are the example I follow when I’ve been in the editor role. I don’t want to alienate people; I want to make them better. People will call me tough, but I also hope they will say I’m not a jerk about it. I think most would because they’d write me recommendations and some are still friends. It’s proof you can strive for a high standard and not be a jerk on the way to the top.

“This is my baseball tie,” my high school AP English teacher said one day in class. It was black. It was the day the MLB strike landed in 1994.

Mr. Curtiss was one of those teachers who inspired me, which I’m remembering today after asking people on social media to tell us about teachers that inspired them. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and the stories I’ve read are touching.

I wouldn’t say Mr. Curtiss was the teacher who made me a journalist or made me love something, but he’s the kind of teacher who “got” me. I’m a quirky person, and growing up where I did in Connecticut that wasn’t always a welcome thing. I was the outcast. But I always felt safe to be me in Mr. Curtiss’ class. But he also opened my eyes to a new way of studying literature.

We read all sorts of books in his class (and I actually wanted to read most of them), but we didn’t have quizzes on them or intense essays to write. Someone was picked to find a sentence from our reading assignment for us to discuss. It was fun to see what other people chose, especially the discussion they drove. They were always intense and so often someone would have an epiphany where the light bulb went off.

Strangely, Mr. Curtiss’ wife was my Shakespeare teacher, and she also is another one who inspired me. I don’t think I would love Shakespeare as much as I do today if it wasn’t for her. We watched movies. She gave us fake quizzes. And she loved “Bill.” You couldn’t not love Shakespeare hearing her talk about him. Oh and getting to go see Hamlet on a Broadway stage helped continue to stroke those flames.

Something Mrs. Curtiss said to me also stuck with me forever. She once told me that I was a good writer who needed to be tamed. I think that’s why I look such an interest in self editing and being a better writer as I grew from teenager to working adult. She saw talent in me.

There are so many teachers from growing up I could continue to list who had a dramatic influence on me and the person I have become. Some from later years in college and graduate school became mentors. But I feel like those teachers we had growing up had an even bigger influence because we spent so much time with them. I wouldn’t love literature and Shakespeare like I do if it wasn’t for the Curtisses and Mr. Lippman or the history of revolution because of Mr. Blanc. I got my first break in journalism thanks to my high school guidance counselor. I also had those teachers I wanted to prove wrong and feel like I have.

I also wonder what has happened to a lot of the teachers who guided me through my life. You’d think a Google search would help, but not always. If they are reading this, though, thank you.

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