After local police raided the office of the Marion County Record and the home of its owners, creating a national outcry that was entirely justified, the question was asked in newspaper offices around the country, and sometimes in their pages: “Could this happen here?”
It’s more likely in some places than others, depending on the nature of the paper, the town, its leaders and the police.
In the Record’s case, the accountability journalism that Publisher Eric Meyer practiced and taught in Milwaukee hasn’t gone down well with some powerful people in his hometown of Marion, Kansas, since he returned two years ago.
But eight years ago, such a raid would have been hard to imagine, even in towns where the newspaper’s relations with police and elected officials are poor.
What has happened in the last eight years? For one thing, social media have become the primary source of information for Americans, and a presidential candidate – who was president for four of those years – has used social and other media to cast all news media as “the enemy of the people.”
Social media are often more compelling and entertaining than the local news reported by community newspapers, so they have shifted Americans’ attention more in the direction of national events and issues. That, and the declining audiences of local news media, have reduced citizens’ familiarity with their local media and blurred the distinctions between local and national media.
All that gives comfort and perhaps license to the adversaries of local news media, like the Marion police chief whose past the Record was investigating but had not reported at the time of the raid. Using some trumped-up assertions and assumptions, he got a low-level magistrate from another county to sign search warrants.
The day after the raid, Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, who worked at the weekly for 50 years, collapsed and died, and her son blamed it on the police.
Surely no one wished ill, much less death, to Joan Meyer. But the Record’s case is not a one-off; in March some law-enforcement officials in next-door Oklahoma said they would like to kill the weekly McCurtain Gazette reporter who had been investigating them.
Again, it’s hard to imagine such a conversation happening eight years ago. The corrosion and division of our national public life has leached into our small towns, and it seems that in some of those places, the more a community newspaper tries to fulfill its role completely, the more it is seen as an enemy – if not of the people, of their leaders.
It’s a maxim of rural journalism that it’s more difficult to do hard-nosed accountability journalism in rural places. Resources are fewer, and the folks you try to hold accountable are your neighbors. If they have economic or political power, that can make accountability journalism more difficult, and editorial timidity is common in community papers.
That’s a matter of degree, to be sure. America has rural newspapers that cover courthouses and city halls like they were state or national capitols, and have strong editorial pages; at the other end of the spectrum it has those that barely cover the regular meetings of public agencies and serve as public-relations vehicles for elected officials.
That’s a wide spectrum, and I fear that its median point is moving in the latter direction, for several reasons.
The shrinkage of newspapers’ audiences and revenue have made them less independent, less willing to risk economic or other harm. The polarization of national politics has reached the local level, making some excellent rural editors think twice or pull their punches when looking beyond the county line, or stop publishing letters and commentaries about non-local issues because they are so divisive. (You can read about those trends in “The Trump Effect on Rural Communities and their Newspapers,” a chapter I wrote for The Future of the Presidency, Journalism and Democracy, published last year by Routledge.)
The raid on the Record is an inflection point on that spectrum. Will it mainly stiffen the backbones of rural newspapers, prompting rededication to accountability journalism? Or will more worry that making waves isn’t good for a business that needs no more risks?
Community journalism is more than a business; it is an essential public service, envisioned by our nation’s founders when they wrote the First Amendment. Many Americans still understand that, but not enough, partly because they’re no longer engaged with it. Rebuilding that audience requires, in part, engaging with them on the social-media platforms where they have gone – and explaining the difference in social media and news media.
Here’s my freshly revised elevator speech on that point: News media pay for journalism, which practices a discipline of verification: We emphasize facts, and we tell you how we got them. Social media emphasize opinion, and have no discipline or verification. Which should you trust?
And when we explain accountability journalism, news media need to make clear that they are accountable, too. And that watchdogs sometimes bark when they shouldn’t – but if a watchdog doesn’t sometimes engage in extraneous barking, it does not serve the purpose for which you got the watchdog.
Most Americans want watchdogs. Eric Meyer told Dan Kois of Slate, “If you read my email, they’re supporting us from the extreme left and the extreme right. This is one of the few issues that unites both sides.”
Meyer told me that many express their support privately but not publicly. That seems not to bother him. “We’re sticking to it,” he said. “We want to set an example that we won’t be intimidated.”
Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director emeritus of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and can be reached at email@example.com.