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What local journalists do matters, now more than ever

A few months ago, I got an email from a source — not a close friend but someone who has been part of my job for the last couple of decades and someone I hold in high regard.

He sent it to two of us in the newsroom, a couple of gum-shoe reporters who have been doing this a long time and have gotten too old to do much else.

"I wanted to share an experience I had yesterday that I felt only a few people would understand," his email started. "... I just completely cancelled my Mom’s newspaper subscription. That newspaper has been coming to this house FOR ALMOST 60 YEARS! Since the onset of dementia, my bedridden Mom has been unable to read the paper. And I know you will think this is stupid but I actually cried — no I actually balled — after making that phone call."

There's more.

"I have countless memories of both my Dad and Mom reading the paper. When I told my wife of this experience, she told me my Dad had told her just how much I had read the paper as a youngster. Well, hearing about my Dad just added more grief to the experience. Anyway, I just thought the two of you could appreciate my thoughts. It was just another in a series of painful passings as we literally and figuratively lose parents — as we all age."

What we do matters.

I have known that for a long time. It is one of the reasons I still do it and one of the reasons I didn't walk away from a sports editor's job in the mid-1980s and go to law school. God knows, I could have made more money in a courtroom than a newsroom.

I have been thinking about that email a lot in recent weeks. It's no secret that we are in a transition at the Ledger-Enquirer and a hard-core group of veteran reporters and editors are working to get to the other side and see what this looks like.

And we will get there. McClatchy, our parent company, will figure it out. And those of us who work to bring you the news will figure it out.

But what that email shows me is that local newspapers are an intensely personal product to some. Now, we are no longer just a newspaper, but we are a widely read online product, as well. The problem with the online distribution is the connection and flood of emotion you saw with this email is just not there.

The work ethic of the journalists is, but the personal connection just isn't. You don't invest any emotional capital when you click away from a story. For some, just picking up the print paper is emotional.

I say all that to say this:

This week, we got a taste, a nasty taste, of the value and connection to local newspapers with the tragic shooting deaths of four journalists and an advertising rep in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md. As I read the names of those senselessly murdered by a deranged gunman with a beef against the newspaper, I thought back to the hundreds of journalists I have worked with over the years in newsrooms from Dothan to Montgomery to Anniston to Enterprise and to Columbus.

I could see a piece of some of my mentors, colleagues and friends in the bios of the fallen.

There were four veteran journalists who were shot, editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; assistant editor/news Rob Hiaasen, 59; staff writer and editor for the Bowie Blade-News John McNamara, 56; and special publications editor Wendi Winters, 65.

As someone who can see the end of his career from here, I can relate to those journalists. We were likely on the same career path. They didn't deserve the fate that met them on Thursday. All they did was go to work doing a job they no doubt loved.

And, to be honest, a disgruntled reader is something I have been concerned about here for several years. I am the guy who keeps a keen eye on people wandering through the newsroom. If you are there, I will make sure you have a reason to be there.

To some, it seems like paranoia. For me, it's just situational awareness.

The nastiness toward us has increased. A couple of years ago, I went to a political victory party that didn't turn out to be a victory. I was working and before it was over, I thought I was going to have to fight my way out. It was ugly, but I was an easy target. All of a sudden, a political setback was my fault because of the way I covered the race. You got to blame somebody.

And these were people I respect greatly. It was at that point, I knew we were playing a new game. And the only way to play that game is to make sure the reporting is accurate, and when it isn't correct it as quickly as possible. Getting the information in the proper context was now more important than ever.

I have taken this attitude toward myself and those I work with: If you don't love being a journalist, do something else. There is no other reason to do it. And if you love it enough and have a modicum of talent, you will probably do it well.

But there is also hope, a lot of it.

We have a young colleague in our newsroom, Scott Berson, who reminds me of the younger me, a guy full of hope and aspirations. He is a sponge and he's in a newsroom because he wants to be. You can tell he loves chasing news. It's been my experience, that's something you can't fake.

"Journalists are working for you," he wrote. "They're not doing it for big money (hilarious). They're not sitting around thinking up ways to 'spin' anything. Their job is to learn what is happening and then tell you.

"That's it. That's IT.

"And your local reporters, I guarantee, are probably some of the least partisan people in your city. Of course they are. When you go all over the city talking to everyone, reporting on everything, it's a bit tough to silo yourself into some ideological label. Reporters just want to know what is happening so they can tell you.

"That's it.

"And they're working long hours, many days a week, to do it, when they could be doing things that are a LOT more lucrative. Instead, they do it because they care about you, and your city. They aren't your enemy. They aren't necessarily your friends either. There's no plot or scheme. It's just people. I don't know what the motive is for Annapolis. At this point right now, it doesn't matter. Doesn't change anything."

We are not perfect, but I am not sure I would want to live in a community without us.

We got a future because of young people who think like Scott — and people like the source who canceled his mom's subscription.

We got a future because what we do matters.

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