I had an editor once who had a simple message to his reporters: Readers will be interested in any story you write so long as you tell them up front what it means to them: What it will do to their property values, their schools, their roads, or their commutes.
He was right. That’s what makes local journalism so powerful and so much fun. The stories we are telling you matter very deeply because they’re close to home. They affect you, your friends and neighbors, the places you live, work, and shop.
Even when we’re not strictly speaking telling you what a story means to your property values, we’re telling you something about your community: who’s doing good work (or doing bad things), what the sirens were all about, what restaurants and business are opening and closing.
Those are the things that make up the fabric of the community and they’re the things we all talk about with family and friends.
I had a good laugh this week while preparing our weekly online gallery of old Register front pages, called “Where were you?” The top headline for Jan. 21, 2013 was “Supervisors deny request to raise 1,000 roosters.”
I’d be willing to bet the New York Times and the Washington Post have never, ever had “1,000 roosters” on their front pages, much less as the top headline.
It’s a small thing in the cosmic, or even regional, scale, almost comically small town, but it was an issue that mattered a lot to the farmer and to the people in American Canyon who lived near the proposed farm. It mattered to people generally in the ag community, and it also told a little something about how Napa County was growing and changing from the rural farming place it used to be.
That kind of story is why I love local news so much.
I didn’t always have this view of news. I grew up in the D.C. area, reading the Post and the late, great Washington Star. While they had metro sections, their local news had to encompass a region almost 100 miles across with as many as 2 million people, so the discussion of, say, a proposed rooster farm or any other action was usually limited to a brief, if that.
That means we were all fed a steady diet of national news. Growing up, I knew about Congress, the president, great national and international controversies, but hardly anything about what the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors or the Alexandria City Council might be doing.
I started my newspaper career in a very different place, though – a little weekly newspaper in Central Virginia: The Greene County Record, in a rural county of about 10,000 people with a circulation of about 2,500. It was about the same size and character as the St. Helena Star.
The farmers, businesses and residents of Greene County didn’t give a hoot about Congress or the White House. They wanted to know what the Supervisors were going to do about a proposed subdivision, when the town of Ruckersville would get its long-promised sewer line, and whether the William Monroe High School Wildcats managed to beat the hated Orange County High Hornets or not.
Over the course of my career I went to progressively larger papers, finally rising to cover Congress and the White House for the Washington Times, with a national readership. Journalistically speaking, covering national politics is the pinnacle of a career, the goal that many young journalists dream of and sacrifice for. It is the path to fame and (very modest) fortune, to television, to book deals, to becoming something of a celebrity.
But I found it kind of a drag. The higher up the ranks I rose in journalism, the farther I felt myself getting from the concerns of those people back in small towns. It gets pretty hard to explain why most of the things that happen in Washington matter directly to you and your life.
That’s why the “1,000 roosters” story brought a smile to my face. It may seem trivial, something that matters to a small number of people. To those people, however, this issue mattered a lot. It’s the kind of story that people in small towns and cities, from Greene County, Virginia to Napa County, California can relate to.
And it was a story only we would bother to write.
That’s what a small-town paper does, and that’s what makes the job we do worth it every day.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.