Myth: Newspapers are not connected to their community

June 7, 2010

By Charlotte H. Hall, Senior Vice President and Editor, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel

A disgraced mayor resigns in Detroit. Financial abuses in day care centers are stopped in Wisconsin. A mentally ill Chinese immigrant in New York is treated after languishing in detention. Corrupt narcotics cops in Philadelphia are weeded out and criminally investigated.

Newspaper stories make things happen every day in communities large and small. Wrongs get righted, laws are changed, corrupt officials resign, needy people find help, consumers are warned, citizens join in conversation.

Relentless reporting fuels public interest journalism. The majority of it — and almost all of it at the local level — still originates in newspaper newsrooms. While newspapers have lost staff and gotten smaller, editors have chosen wisely in preserving the watchdogs and developing the power of their websites.

Today the impact of public interest journalism is growing because it appears in many formats — on growing web sites, on mobile apps, on Facebook and Twitter— and yes, in print. It is enriched in ways not contemplated a decade ago, from flash animation and video to searchable databases. The best reporting embraces interactivity, with citizen sourcing, reader involvement and real-time feedback. Newspapers are building communities of interest with citizen blogs, live chats and social media. In fact, the reach of many newspapers is expanding, thanks to their rapid digital growth.

Some might say, oh yes, the big newspapers still have impact on public life, but small papers no longer have the staffs and have stopped covering essential public service beats. Well, truth be told, small newspapers continue to produce powerful local reporting and remain the backbone of democracy in their communities. They have the greatest penetration, often as high as 70 or 80 percent of adults in their markets, combining print and digital audiences.

In Glens Falls, N.Y., a crusading editorial writer for a small newspaper wins the Pulitzer Prize for pounding public officials over secrecy in government. He also starts a blog for citizens, “Your right to know.” In Tucson, reporters reveal that the city had essentially wasted $89 million on failed downtown revitalization projects. In Madison, Wis., reporting on safety lapses in carnival rides leads to stepped up state enforcement.

Finally, a word about a newspaper’s institutional voice — its editorial page — and its most powerful individual voices--the columnists. Do they still matter? In the digital world, columnists matter more than ever — they are the stars of blogs and live chats, Twitter and Facebook. They form their own communities, and readers react more strongly than ever because they feel they know them personally.

Meanwhile, editorial page editors are retooling their print pages and enriching their web content to offer more reader involvement. That’s as it should be—the more voices the better. The editorial page also has a responsibility to lead, to be a strong and informed voice about what’s best for the community. Recognizing that role, candidates, policymakers and special interest groups eagerly seek face time with editorial boards, trying to sway their opinion, and editorial pages are must reading in city halls and statehouses.

A good newspaper is a lamp to its community, shining light in dark places and showing the way. That lamp still burns bright in America’s newsrooms.

Charlotte H. Hall, Senior Vice President and Editor, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel