I’m a Small-Town Journalist—Not a Hero
5 min read | Feb 2022

I’m a Small-Town Journalist—Not a Hero

The newspaper industry likes to pat itself on the back, but it’s prone to the same biased issues of more polarizing media.

HH / Millennial / Socialist / Journalist

On my first week of work, someone called into the office and demanded to know if I was a communist.

This didn’t happen during the Cold War; this was four months ago.

I had just started work at a local, small-town newspaper, and we had run a story in my first issue. It introduced me, gave a short bio and mentioned my master’s degree and that I had lived in New York.

In fairness to the man who called, my politics are pretty far left (I wasn’t the one who picked up the phone, so I got out of telling him that). I knew that I’d be out of place in the libertarian Mountain West, but I wanted to give it a try because I wanted to listen better to people I disagreed with, especially in a culture far different from my own. This is where the writing job was, and I took it.

Here’s what I’ve found: No matter what other perspectives journalists and news outlets hold, the press is still biased in favor of the press. I don’t think the industry deserves the credit it gives itself.

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I Joined the School Newspaper and Learned About Its Ideals

I started paying attention to the media world in college, around late 2015. I enjoyed learning what good writing could teach me, whether that was a perspective from an essay or a person’s story from a profile. I had been majoring in humanities but narrowed my focus to journalism specifically. I soon joined the student newspaper.

Most of my classmates at the paper enjoyed the harder edge of journalism, investigating and breaking news wherever they could. They cornered the board of regents after their meetings and dug up legal documents about the university’s finances. At its best, that type of journalism is valuable as a public service, uncovering the world’s secrets and keeping its leaders honest.

This formative time coincided with a world-changing presidential election, and the press, even at its most neutral, became politicized. Facing criticism from the grassroots right below and the president above, the media rallied behind accountability, its ostensible reason for existing. The Washington Post, for example, ran a new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” and promoted it with a Super Bowl commercial. Many on the left rallied behind the media as a way to express their frustration with the new administration—“Democracy Dies in Darkness” is available as a T-shirt. The news media and its creators were seen as heroes, a view that trickled down from the White House press room until it covered the entire industry.

The most vulnerable news outlets, however, are the local ones, and as small-town papers have been forced to close over the past several years, national media have told their stories. Coming from well-funded and well-known platforms, these stories—like the last reporter in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, as seen in The New York Times, or The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, depicted in The Atlantic—are a way to show how the other half lives, but they also emphasize how important it is to report the news and how it matters to readers and their communities. Local journalism, these pieces are quick to point out, decreases political polarization because it encourages people to listen to one another more.

My Editors Are Culpable of Slanting Stories and Headlines

I came to this little town to listen better. I had been looking for other writing jobs, but when I saw this one, the opportunity to participate in something important appealed to me. The local newspaper matters to its community—I knew that from the stories I’d read. I knew my neighbors wouldn’t share my political beliefs, but why should I let that stop me? If I backed away from this job because it was in a conservative part of the country, then I would be no better than the latte-sipping coastal elites who people here expect to look down on them. So I accepted the paper’s offer and moved 1,400 miles away from home to be a reporter.

My job isn’t heroic. I can’t even say I’m proud of it.

In many ways, I work at a great paper. It’s strictly local, with no filler from The Associated Press or other newswires. You can find standings from the high school basketball league, but not NBA scores. Whenever the county commissioners have their meetings, I’m there, ready to write up what they discuss. I also cover retirements and charity auctions, small events that are barely news but give people a way to be proud of their community.

It often isn’t that simple, especially in the ongoing aftermath of the pandemic. Cases were so high this fall that the schools shut their doors. I think that was a wise choice, but at the next two school board meetings, parents and others in the community packed the high school gym to express their disapproval. I thought, and still think, that the closure and the mask requirement that followed were the right decision. I tried to cover those meetings neutrally, but when I wasn’t enthusiastic about the parents’ disapproval, the paper got angry calls and letters to the editor.

In editorial meetings and in my story assignments, my editors have pushed for stories about flaws and hypocrisy with regard to state and federal health requirements, especially about vaccines. Those flaws exist, to be sure, but slanting the coverage in a way that emphasizes the mess and not the health risk caters to our readers’ preconceived ideas of how society works.

That doesn’t reduce polarization; it makes it worse.

Even on local issues, where our paper is the only way for people to learn what happens in the city planning and zoning meetings, I still have an editorial mandate to make it interesting. That means emphasizing the conflict: If a homeowner is denied a permit to renovate her property, she’s the victim, and the committee members are being ignorant and arrogant for maintaining the status quo. Our paper’s publisher is also the head of a group in town that promotes development, which slants the coverage even further.

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Newspapers Are Still a Business Trying to Sell Ad Space

Newspapers are a product to be sold. They are made to sell copies and advertising space. To make that happen, we, as journalists, write stories that people want to read, and if that means exaggerating drama or leaning on one political viewpoint to make it happen, that’s what we do.

I doubt most journalists feel this way about the field they work in; otherwise, we would get better-paying jobs somewhere else. But even this sense of self-sacrifice is part of the problem: If half the country is calling you a hero, it’s hard not to listen, especially if the other half is dismissing you out of hand with ignorant fury. The conditions are perfect for developing a martyr complex.

The popular idea of a small-town paper, with its aw-shucks editor and salt-of-the-earth reporters pounding the pavement, is a nice one. It’s easy to digest. The highest achievements of the industry, like the investigations into Watergate at The Washington Post or the Catholic sex abuse scandal in The Boston Globe, also paint newspapers in a flattering light.

Those stories matter, but at their core, newspapers are in the same kind of business as cable news and talking-head pundits. And I’m part of it.

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