On Madison’s most recent appearance in The NY Times • Michael Prochaska
Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 out of 48 counts of child abuse last Friday, but you won’t find that in the Morgan County Citizen. If applicable, community journalists will localize a national issue by asking how it affects John Doe in Small Town, U.S.A., but for the most part, local newspapers have neither the financial backing nor the time to report on matters outside their purview.
In the longstanding history of newspapers, regional and national publications were credited for filling that gap. With the advent of 24-hour news cycles and the unlimited space of the Web, it was assumed that those institutions could be held accountable for covering not only the urban landscapes surrounding their offices but the outlying geography of suburban streets, truck stop towns and countryside farms.
But don’t let my idealism fool you.
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reduced its circulation area from 74 to 20 counties between the summers of 2008 and 2009, it was about the money. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced the cessation of a print product, again, it was about the money. And when The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ lone daily newspaper, revealed plans to send pages to press only three days a week beginning this fall, it was all about the layoffs – about 200 jobs to be exact.
The spin-doctors behind the corporate entities that own most regional newspapers will placate readers with assurance that news can now be read at your convenience, ink-stain free, while standing in line for coffee at your local Starbucks.
Don’t let their idealism fool you.
There is nothing blasphemous about the technological upgrades to the newspaper industry. Journalists owe a great debt to Steve Jobs and other innovators for a media revolution that has made reading more entertaining, interactive and informative.
But a Twitter feed is a tool, not a curtain. It cannot mask the fragility of an industry shaken by dwindling advertising and a shrinking influence.
That’s why I was shocked to see Madison, Ga. on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times. Kim Severson, an Atlanta bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote an exposé on the segregation of Southern funeral homes, but it read more like a human-interest piece on Mapp-Gilmore owner Charles Menendez.
Regardless, Citizen reader feedback has swung on both sides of the pendulum. Some consider racially separated businesses a preference rooted in tradition, similar to African American church congregations. But even though institutional segregation is no longer enforced in this day and age, “casual segregation” can be just as divisive. The Civil Rights movement was about revolutionizing America’s moral compass as much as it was drafting legislation. For this reason, I understand why the lack of diversification within a particular arena of a small town constitutes national news.
It's a rarity to witness a larger publication concerning itself with the complexities and social leanings of "just another small town.” I'm grateful The Gray Lady made visible the unfortunate truth that racial divides still exist in one form or another throughout America.
Though The New York Times has bureaus all over the world, it's nice to see that there is no place too small to trigger its interest. That feeling is a comfort lost for readers of many regional and some national newspapers. I guess there’s a reason other newspapers don’t stand behind the slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print.” They’re broke and understaffed.
Printed in the June 28, 2012 edition