Earlier this week I read a post by the hero of reporters everywhere, David Simon. Simon, most famous for bringing us The Wire, wrote a blog post called “Why Beat Reporters Matter.” As a former reporter, who now edits a magazine about digital media (including journalism), and happened to write a funny, lighthearted novel about a reporter, I came at the article with a wealth of opinions on the subject.
The sinecure of professional prose journalism, which is now threatened by a new economic model, was the only place in my city where resources were once allocated for an independent, unaligned voice to spend years in the bowels of a civic institution — long enough that I began to understand what a statistic might represent, and what it might not represent.
Let’s face it, I was a reporter at a community newspaper in a smallish town. I did cover the police for a while, but that mostly meant reporting DUIs. I am no David Simon. But this got me thinking about, oddly enough, Fiona vs. the Foot Tickler.
Yes, it’s a silly, fun book about a weird crime in a strange little town. But I’ve always thought about it — and the larger series I have planned — as a story, in part, about the struggles that a small town experiencing growing pains goes through. The old-timers vs. the new-comers, and what happens when those groups clash. And now, I’m also starting to think about it in terms of the important role journalists play in their communities.
I also happened to recently listen to an episode of This American Life that featured a report on a company called Journatic — which basically outsources local news writing to Filipino writers and sells it to large news organizations that would not normally cover local matters.
I have a special affinity for local news; I believe it’s the news that really matters to most of us. I spent much of this morning trying to figure out if there had been an accident near my house that accounted for the loss of power in the middle of the night and the weird sounds of a saw. For most of us, stories about mil rates, school budgets, and zoning decisions are what really impact our daily lives. I’ve long lamented the homogenization of local news by sites like AOL Patch and complained — for much longer — about wannabe local newspapers that do a terrible job of covering town news. (You know, the ones that show up on your step for free, with 3 pages of ads for every one page of poorly put together news.)
Fiona Blake is an old-fashioned reporter. She carries her notebook and camera every where she goes, but more importantly, she’s part of the community. People turn to her when they have a tip because they know and trust her. They’re just as likely to see her drinking at the local watering hole as they are to see her at a town council meeting. She has a relationship with the people of the town, one that is, ultimately, very important to uncovering the real identity of the Foot Tickler.
Moral of the story: If you don’t want some creep sneaking into your house and tickling your feet, pay for your news.