Column: The nuts and bolts of community journalism

When I began my career in journalism as a sportswriter, I’d often engage in the same conversation with people. When someone heard I covered sports, they would excitedly inquire as to whether I covered the Jets or Yankees or some other professional team in New York.

It seemed like everyone’s initial assumption was that my life was spent hanging out with professional athletes, traveling the country and smoking cigars with A-Rod on a yacht somewhere.

The reality was far less exciting. I’d explain that, no, I don’t cover a professional team. My day-to-day work involved traveling to high schools, watching teenagers play every sport imaginable — from football to badminton — and writing for a community newspaper. While there were occasional opportunities to interview a professional athlete or cover a bigger story, the mission was always to cover the student-athletes in the community. Many would never go on to play college sports or professionally, but for that brief period of time, they were at center stage.

ESPN writer Ian O’Connor posted a tweet last week that stuck with me: “I often surprise students when telling them it’s harder covering a community event like a HS football game than it is to cover the Super Bowl, & it’s not even close. Always respect local journalists.”

There has been a lot of discussion over the past week about local journalism in the aftermath of the brutal killing of five people at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland. Two other people were injured as well when the gunman, who had a history of feuding with the paper, burst through the office door with a barrage of bullets.

The staffers who survived deserve enormous credit for persevering through an unthinkable tragedy by continuing to report the story unfolding in their own newsroom. Most of us, God willing, will never be in such a dire situation.

We don’t show up to work every day expecting to do anything heroic. We’re not out to preserve democracy. We don’t expect to uncover a deep scandal lurking in government with every issue that hits newsstands on Thursday morning.

The reality is often much simpler. We strive to do great things and tell important stories, but the nuts and bolts of community journalism remain the same. It’s about the reporters attending school board meetings, bringing readers the information they need to stay informed on their children’s education without spending hours of their night sitting in a high school library. It’s about the photographers attending community festivals, fundraisers and parades, capturing the moments that will live forever in print. It’s about the sportswriters sitting in the bleachers surrounded by parents, scribbling in a notepad to keep stats because there’s no media relations person walking over to hand a printed stat sheet, or video replay to see a play a second time. It’s about sitting through Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals meetings, hoping to find a nugget of information that can lead to an important story that people will want to read. It’s about carefully documenting the lives of the deceased in obituaries — one of the most critical components of a community newspaper. It’s about providing a platform for residents to express opinions on what’s happening in their community.

In our current landscape, “the media” is often thrown out as an all-encompassing term. It’s worth remembering that for every reporter at a powerful, big-city publication, there are even more reporters in small communities pounding the pavement to bring readers compelling information. Both serve an important role. After all, someone needs to keep tabs on the White House, national security and foreign affairs. And someone needs to keep tabs on the tax levy at your local school.

As many writers have noted in stories over the past week, the reporters, editors and photographers who enter this field do it not to become wealthy or famous. We share a common passion for storytelling, for bringing stories to light that would otherwise go untold. We lose sleep at night over “deadline nightmares” — that dreaded moment when you think a story about to publish the next morning might be missing something. But in the end, this job can be a lot of fun, and the thrill of chasing a story can be exhilarating.

When readers send a thank-you note to share how a story touched them, it makes it all worth it.

We may not save democracy every Thursday, but if that day comes, we’ll take it.

The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].