LEXINGTON, Virginia — Every Wednesday morning, James McDaniel sits along the South Main Street portion of U.S. Highway 11 with a healthy stack of The News-Gazette beside him. He wears a neat white apron with the newspaper’s moniker stitched across the top.
He keeps a small, folded tarp tucked away to protect the paper in case of rain, even if there isn’t a cloud in the sky. “You just never know,” he says. He also keeps a broad, never-failing smile on his face and a “hello” on his lips for everyone who passes on the street, whether they buy a paper or not.
During the semester I taught at Washington and Lee University last spring, I would buy a couple dozen copies of the weekly newspaper and bring them to my students to read as part of their curriculum. Perhaps it was an odd choice for young people with never-ending access to information on their smartphones. But I wanted the students to understand the importance of localism and community in the digital age. It’s something you don’t always get when you choose what to read or see, rather than being shown what you might otherwise miss.
Take, for example, the weekly Lexington Farmers’ Market in McCrum’s parking lot, behind the iconic Southern Inn. My students found out about it by reading the paper, despite its having gone on for weeks under their very noses, less than two blocks from our classroom. As they put it, before seeing it in the local paper, they hadn’t even known to look for it.
The trip ended up becoming their first news-writing assignment. They all spread out and interviewed people, like the lilac farmer who produces her own soaps and candles; the quiet Amish family with the abundance of homemade, doughy baked goods; the woodworker; the beekeeper with jars of fresh honey and beeswax; and several local organic farmers.
The lesson was that the most trusted news stories come from reporters who are actually part of the localities on which they are reporting. This is something News-Gazette publisher Matt Paxton emphasizes. It’s the reason people in Rockbridge County trust his newsroom more than they do the national news.
Last week, Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer study and once again found a steep decline in trust in national media, with 57% of those surveyed globally believing that the media they use is “contaminated with untrustworthy information.” The vast majority (76%) “worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.”
“I think that much of the distrust of national media revolves around the general polarization of national politics,” explained Paxton. It’s something community newspapers avoid by simply being as fair as possible.
“We all have the experience of writing a story and then walking down the street and running into the person that we just wrote about,” he explained. “And when you write a story, you keep that in the back of your mind. You want to be scrupulously fair and not just throwing arrows.”
The problem is that people in places far from New York and Washington newsrooms are being forced more and more to read or view the national news because sometimes it is their only option. More and more local newspapers across the country are closing. There is no one left to report on lacrosse games or water authority decisions or city councils or police forces.
A study by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Media and Journalism showed that hundreds of newspapers have closed across the country. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs, leaving local news deserts for millions.
People in these news deserts end up getting their news from someone outside their community who does not share their values or worldview. They end up seeing bias and a lack of balance in the reporting. People at national newsrooms often have no one working there who is like them.
“This is a real interesting issue,” Paxton remarked to me. “Last Friday was the Lee-Jackson Day Celebration; we had people who dressed up in Confederate dress, waving Confederate flags … all over the place. Monday was MLK Day. We had, even in the freezing weather, a big parade and some neat observances around the community. We covered both of those very thoroughly. I can’t think of two things that are so diametrically opposed, and yet everybody seemed to get along. … Covered by the national news it would have definitely been sensational.”
Paxton, who was once the president of the National Newspaper Association, is bullish on the future of community newspapers in spite of all the bad national news. “No doubt they are always needed and critical,” he said. “They are the heart of where the trust in news lives.”