I was surprised and a bit saddened by an email I received a few weeks ago from Kathy Brown, the senior editor of a local news outlet. It began this way: “You are receiving this because in the past you have sent in an article or press release to HK-Now.com/Haddam Killingworth News. Tomorrow I am retiring from the newspaper business.”
True to form, “Ms. Brown” (as I always addressed her in emails) cut right to the chase in her cordial-yet-straightforward style. I have been interacting with the now former senior editor for a decade as both a journalism teacher who would send her the occasional student-journalist to write for her and as a contributor of news from Haddam-Killingworth High School.
I certainly understood her decision. Kathy Brown, quite simply, was the workhorse at the local news outlet, logging between 20 and 40 hours a week in addition to her full-time job as an elementary school tutor.
“Typically, I worked on [HK-Now] a couple hours before school, during my lunch break, when I got home from school, and then caught up on the weekends,” Brown told me. “I learned to do a lot of posting on my phone. I brought my laptop with me on family vacations – which my family wasn’t too happy about – so that I could post from anywhere. My family got used to hearing me say, ‘Just one more post’ or ‘I’m almost done writing this last article’.”
While she is now enjoying her well-deserved retirement from the news business, Brown’s departure is one more example of the major challenges facing local news outlets, a situation another CT News Junkie writer addressed in the op-ed “A Way Forward for Facts” in November.
“During the past two decades, the number of newspaper reporters in the U.S. has dropped by 36,000 – or 60%,” wrote Hardy. “Some 1,800 communities have lost newspapers. News deserts and ‘ghost newspapers’ – newsrooms so desolate that they don’t truly cover the town – abound across the country and right here in our state.”
Hardy described a bill in the U.S. Senate Finance Committee that “includes an important provision that makes sure that the publishers of small local news outlets are treated equitably compared to larger chain operations. That provision is supported by the Rebuild Local News coalition and its many members.”
Rebuild Local News advocates for “locally-grounded and nonprofit community journalism” conducted by the more than 3,000 “weekly community newspapers, citywide nonprofit websites, ethnic publications, centers for state watchdog journalism, digital-first news sites, rural papers, public radio stations, and family-owned newspapers.”
Notably missing from that list are social-media platforms, now the first source of news for more than half of all consumers, according to Pew Research. Social media is omitted because original, local journalism – the kind conducted by seasoned reporters – remains the backbone of American democracy. Sadly, that backbone is breaking, seemingly replaced by Facebook and Twitter accounts that pretend to serve as citizen forums – and some actually do – but many act as nothing more than havens for insufferable whiners and haters. You know the sites – ones with names like “The Podunk Rant Page.”
As responsible journalists like Kathy Brown continue to dwindle in number, so too does responsible journalism itself.
“I think the role of a newspaper is to report news, not give opinions,” said Brown. “Not try to sway people to one side or another. To report the news. What is going on. When is it going on. Why is it going on. In a small community such as ours, I think reporting good news as well as bad is important.”
Brown explained how she is vigilant about producing stories that are balanced and factual.
“I’m a voracious reader, so I like to know the story behind the story,” she said. “And I want to know both sides, not just one. When I listen or read news articles from other sources – for instance, NPR or CBS News – I listen for slant. I became very good at seeing things from all sides and asked people [who submitted stories] – quite a few times – to change their words so that the news was facts and not opinions. Or I would suggest a letter to the editor or an op-ed if they wanted to keep opinions in their writing.”
What might the future hold for HK-Now, which gets between 400 and 5,000 views a day, and its companion newspaper Haddam Killingworth News, delivered to 12,000 households? As a 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization staffed mostly by volunteers – and with Brown now retired – that’s a good question.
“I’m optimistic,” said Brown. “It’s kind of too early to tell, but I’m hoping a community newspaper is something people value so people will step up to support it.”If they don’t step up, the consequences could be dire, as we’ve already seen in too many communities across the country. The survival of American democracy, quite simply, depends on journalists like Kathy Brown.