When I started in the newspaper business, “local news” often meant who was sick and who was visiting.
My first job as a journalist was at The Evening Sentinel, a daily newspaper of about 4,000 circulation in Shenandoah, Iowa, that went out of publication in the 1990s. I was a sports writer, covering the school teams in nearby towns even smaller than “Shen.”
Chuck Offenburger, the sports editor, and I filled some space in the back of the paper with game stories and features on local athletes. The front page reported big (for Shen) news such as the city council and school board actions and an occasional crime or court case. But the heart of the newspaper was what we called the “locals,” a string of one-paragraph tidbits giving updates on someone’s illness or telling whose kids were visiting from college or from the distant big cities where lots of Shen’s kids moved off to (and if you were in Shen, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were big cities).
Some people called the locals in or brought them in (often handwritten and difficult to read) and a semi-retired editor named Bob Tindall rounded lots of them up on the phone, checking out tips that he had received from the town gossips, of which Shen had no shortage. In nearby towns such as Farragut, Coin and Randolph, “correspondents” (busybodies might have been a more accurate term) sent in the locals from their communities, again many of them handwritten.
As a youth who yearned to break bigger news in a big city somewhere, I was pretty scornful of the locals and glad when I made it to bigger papers that didn’t waste time or space on such trivial news.
I laughed heartily when the TV show “M*A*S*H” mocked the locals. Hawkeye Pierce would read weeks-old copies of the Crabapple Cove Courier, sent by his father back home in Maine. Of course, when the laughter died, those trivial tidbits of people’s lives from back home always aggravated Hawkeye’s homesickness and deepened his connection to home. (Remember, in the final episode, he was returning to Crabapple Cove, not heading off to a big hospital in the big city).
I’m learning now how vital those updates on ailing loved ones are. I’m seeing an opportunity that newspapers have missed. And I’m mulling what we can do to deepen people’s personal connections to their community.
I have a nephew in Vermont who is undergoing grueling chemotherapy treatment for leukemia. I’m his godfather, though we haven’t been very close geographically any time in his life and I haven’t stayed in touch enough with him and his family by letter, phone or email. But they visited us in Virginia a couple years ago. We visited them in Vermont last May. Patrick is in those adolescent years where changes are dramatic from one visit to the next: a few inches taller, a different hairstyle, a deeper voice, more engaged with the adult conversation as a youth strains to belong with the grown-ups.
I became an Eagle Scout almost 39 years ago, and Patrick has pursued Scouting harder than my sons, so that has been a bond over the miles of separation between intermittent visits. I showed him my patches when he was young and later traded him some of my patches from the 1960s for some of his from the 21st Century. When he went to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico this summer, I followed his mountain-climbing updates from afar.
When we learned right before Christmas that Patrick had leukemia, the whole family was devastated. The news and the early updates traveled by telephone and email. But soon his parents set up a password-protected site on CaringBridge.org. We read the vital news about medical progress and the setbacks, the plans for a bone-marrow transplant, the side effects of the drugs. We read the mundane news of who visited today, what movies he watches and games he plays as he battles the boredom of a hospital (a greater challenge, I know, than any Philmont mountain). It keeps us connected to this distant loved one, just like old copies of the Crabappple Cove Courier did for Hawkeye.
CaringBridge is either a lost opportunity for newspapers or a huge challenge for any newspaper company seeking to reclaim that facet of personal news.
But those locals I used to scorn in the Sentinel told a lot of other news that was important in tiny circles: visits, travels, achievements, social meetings and so on. As Gazette Communications transforms our community information operation, we need to develop ways to help people connect and share this vital news of their lives that’s more important in smaller circles than the big stories on Page One.