Good journalism serves communities

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By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

It takes the worst of events for us to appreciate the best about journalism.

When Hurricane Sandy blacked out large swaths of the East Coast, local newspapers informed victims of the pace of recovery of the electric grid and what federal, state and local governments were doing to return life back to normal.

When the flood of the century hit central Indiana in 2008, newspapers in Martinsville, Franklin and Columbus overcame challenges to produce and circulate newspapers so their communities could understand the scope of the disaster and where victims could turn for assistance.

When a massive tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., the staff of The Joplin Globe relentlessly published details of the disaster, including the only available comprehensive list of those who died – all despite the fact that several staff members had lost their homes and one of the dead was their fellow employee.

The zeal is palpable when a newspaper goes into crisis mode.

Suddenly no one is concerned about the viability of the newspaper as an institution, job security or personal lives.

Everyone is united in the effort to publish and distribute the news a community needs and seeks to answer questions about the disaster.

Carriers and circulation directors will take on extra risks to get the newspaper delivered in the teeth of a blizzard. I’ve seen advertising staffers pitch in to collect information needed by the newsroom to tell a complete story. Reporters and editors will put in ungodly hours to get answers for readers.

As our industry struggles in an economic environment where advertising dollars aren’t as plentiful as they once were, we can never forget that content is king. Publishers need the resources to produce and deliver that content – both news and advertising.

As someone who graduated with a journalism degree from Butler University and worked in newsrooms for 13 years prior to law school and my career at Hoosier State Press Association, I cringe every time I hear about a publisher forced to cut back on staff, leave reporting slots vacant or put reporters on furloughs to maintain the positions.

A reporter can only absorb a finite number of beats and still stay on top of what is happening in them. If a reporter is overwhelmed, stories become regurgitations of meetings or events with no context or investigation into what a meeting means to the future of a community.

Are deals cut by a redevelopment commission building the foundation of a prosperous city or creating debt that will drain the community’s ability to meet future challenges?

Who will answer that question if the reporter only has time to put together the story announcing the deal but must move on to the next assignment without following up because there aren’t enough bodies in the newsroom to do more?

When newspaper coverage becomes shallow, government transparency becomes opaque.

Few citizens have the time, gumption or expertise to hold the school board, city council or county commissioners accountable and effect change.

If the newspapers can’t sound the alarm due to dwindling resources, then the warning doesn’t go out and the problem persists or grows into a more serious issue for the community.

When newspapers fail to fulfill the role of government watchdog, they lose relevancy. The ability to provide context to news creates the credibility that our nameplates – our brands – must have.

We all see the value of newspapers when a disaster strikes, but papers must have the resources to cover a disaster or a community in normal times to maintain a bond with the public.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.