“Ma’am, if you want me to stop writing about your grandson, tell him to stop committing felonies.”
An exasperated reporter in my old newsroom ― the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette ― wearily hung up the phone after yet another dressing-down by a local grandma. Everyone in the newsroom nodded in sympathy. We’d all been there, trying to reason with readers, pleading with them not to “kill the messenger.”
My throat tightens as I type those three words. My mind races to Annapolis, Maryland, to a town I’ve never been to and a newsroom I’ve never seen.
I may not have seen it, but I can clearly imagine the Capital Gazette newsroom; its computers and cubicles, its piled-up papers and worn-out coffee maker. Because, to me, it’s every newspaper newsroom I’ve ever visited. It’s the newsroom where I worked for 26 years. It’s the newsroom in your town.
The location doesn’t matter. All local newsrooms are joined at the heart, because they all have a common mission: They tell the story of their community, and they tell it like no one else can.
All local newsrooms are joined at the heart, because they all have a common mission.
Buried deep in a box of keepsakes from my youth, a tattered scrapbook holds clippings from my hometown newspaper. My league-champ baseball team in 1979. My Eagle Scout banquet a few years later.
They are the stories of my life, and that yellowed newsprint is like gold to me now. My local paper cared about my accomplishments, however minor, and I was grateful. I knew where I was from. It said so right there at the top of the page.
All local newspapers want to inform and educate their readers, though some do it better than others. The best ones look out for their community and send up a howl when something’s not right.
National news outlets do this, too, but on a larger scale. They don’t have time to attend your local school board meetings and hoist the red flag when your property tax dollars take a wrong turn and end up in someone’s pocket. National news outlets can’t be there to let you know when your sewer bill is going up, or to give a voice to every neighborhood under siege by drugs and blight.
No, that’s a job for the local newsroom, the one that’s populated with grizzled old newshounds, shy bookish types and young go-getters out to save the world.
Unlike national reporters, who occasionally parachute in for the sexy stories, local newspeople don’t get on a plane at day’s end. They go home to the same neighborhoods and the same streets where their readers live. The same places where the subjects of their stories ― sometimes not the most glowing stories, mind you ― live. They run into them at the mall and the grocery store, give an awkward nod and move along.
My wife often recalls a dinner early in our relationship, where a man at the next table interrupted us. “Are you Rob Byers?” he demanded, as I silently pinpointed him as the leader of a particularly fervent local gun group. “No,” I deadpanned, and we went on to have a nice meal.
A few years into my tenure as executive editor at the Charleston Gazette, I moved my office into the middle of the newsroom so I could be close to the news as it happened. Not long after setting up shop with my open-air arrangement of tables, chairs and file cabinets, I realized I had positioned myself with my back to the nearby door. Security in the building was nonexistent. After any particularly nasty phone call or email from a reader, my head would whip around nervously with each turn of the doorknob.
I imagine there are plenty of anxious newsroom folks with their heads on a swivel today. But like the Annapolis Capital Gazette ― which, unbelievably, still put out a newspaper within hours of last week’s fatal attack ― those other local newsrooms are still covering the stories of their towns. Their shrinking staffs are still asking the tough questions, taking powerful photos, tweeting from the scene.
It’s what they’re trained to do. It’s what comes from doing a job that is as much public service as anything else.
In 2014, I traveled to Pakistan with a group of journalists from across the United States. Through the International Center for Journalists, we visited the newsrooms of two Karachi newspapers.
At one, all of the building’s windows sat stacked on the conference room floor, and fresh concrete covered the holes in the walls where the windows had been. Someone had recently attacked the building with gunfire and homemade bombs.
At the other newsroom, the entrance was barricaded with barrels full of concrete garnished with razor wire. The editor told me matter-of-factly that the Pakistani Taliban had put out a hit list with his name on it.
“You don’t seem all that concerned,” I said, amazed. He laughed and asked: “Would it help?” Then, turning serious, he said: “I’m not saying I’m not scared. I have a family. But I come from a family of journalists.”
I was stunned by the Pakistani reporters’ dedication in the face of lethal danger. Their plight seemed so far removed from American journalism.
That was four years ago. How quickly things have changed. Since his campaign, President Donald Trump has blustered about “fake news,” vilifying journalists as the “enemy of the people.” Readers and viewers have followed suit, and even before last week’s shooting, it felt more dangerous to be a journalist than it had even a few years ago.
I am stunned by the dedication and sheer doggedness of the people at the Capital Gazette. I am moved to tears by the outpouring of support for the fallen. And I hope this will finally, finally wake America up to the crucial role that local journalism plays.
Yes, your local journalists are the messengers in your city or town. And, no, their message isn’t always a happy one. But the tale they tell is one of their town, too. They’re not the enemy. They’re your neighbors.
Rob Byers is the former executive editor of the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia. During his tenure, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2017.