'Non-News' matters in communities - Keith Roulston editorial
One of the things that the pandemic has changed at our house is the evening routine. Pre-COVID, we used to watch the news before going to bed each night. When the news began telling endless stories of death and suffering, it seemed more conducive for a good night’s sleep to go to bed without reminders of how bleak things were.
Not that the news was ever free from sad stories. It’s just that after the pandemic hit, coverage of this one event could take up most of a newscast. Add in heat waves and forest fires and political infighting and it’s enough to give you nightmares.
Sometimes I think that the old saying that “no news is good news” has been amended by big-time news organizations to become “good news is no news”.
I suppose I had that same mindset when I graduated from journalism school way back when lead type was still used to print the news. When I came home to Midwestern Ontario to work on community newspapers, I had a pretty dim view of what was printed in those papers. Conditioned as I was by my professors and professional newspaper mentors to see “real” news as politics, crime, fires and accidents, the weekly reports of who won at the weekly euchre party or who spoke at the Lions Club meeting seemed a waste of good newsprint. I’ve changed my outlook over the years.
Over the long years I’ve come to realize that sort of local “non-news” is what makes living in a small community so interesting. It’s the reason people hang out at coffee sessions at local restaurants to hear the gossip, except that in the community newspaper there’s some level of authentication behind what gets printed.
When Jill and I bought the old Blyth Standard in 1971, we had local correspondents like Helen Stonehouse in Belgrave, Dora Shobbrook in Londesborough, Eleanor Bradnock in Auburn and Betty McCall in Walton who kept people in their villages connected through the pages of the local newspapers. I may have been a bit condescending about the space this took up, but I soon learned, through conversations with our readers when they came to pay for their subscriptions, that this was a hugely important part of the newspaper to them. By the time we began The Citizen in 1985 we hoped to keep the tradition of local correspondents alive.
It hasn’t always been easy, as long-time correspondents retired, to find replacements. We’ve been lucky to find people like Betty Graber-Watson, Marilyn Craig, Jo-Ann McDonald, Brenda Radford and Linda Campbell to take up this under-paid responsibility but other communities that once had correspondents are now all but invisible in the pages of the newspaper.
The “professionalization” of some community newspapers has meant that such amateur news gatherers haven’t been welcomed. Some news organizations have sought to eliminate the sort of reporting that has often made community newspapers the butt of jokes among “real” journalists. But perhaps there’s a correlation between the decline in importance to readers of community newspapers and the decision to make local newspapers small versions of The Toronto Star or the Toronto Sun. After all, one of the alternatives to a printed newspaper is Facebook and what is the main reason many people log on to Facebook? The very kind of person-to-person news people used to get from community correspondents.
Even in this day of worldwide media organizations, hyper-local news is still important and of interest to people. We want to know more than the official news of council meetings. We’re interested when a new business opens or a long-established business leader or professional retires and if there will be someone to replace him or her. It’s harder now, in some ways. Back when I first started covering village council meetings, they passed every building permit at council. You could report on who was putting on a new deck or – real news in those days when we feared for the future of our villages – building a new house.
Following the lead of the big-time media isn’t necessarily a path to success – either for the news outlet or society. One morning recently, Jill, who has taken to watching last night’s late-night news the next morning through the internet, shut down her computer, grumbling that all they ever covered was news that made you angry. Perhaps that’s why the politics of grievance have become so powerful, enabling politicians like Donald Trump to build loyal constituencies among people who are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”.
Hard news is important, allowing us to make enlightened political choices in a democracy. Still, knowing what our neighbours are doing and if the crops are good is part of what makes small towns such livable places.