I had a conversation with a friend earlier this month about my research on the digital practices of local news organizations across the country. He told me, “I really want to believe in the importance of local news. I don’t know if I do, but I want to.” Here’s to you, and to me, and to anyone trying to believe that local media matters.
* * *
In honor of February, the inaptly-chosen month of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to declare my love for something dorky, faltering, often struggling, very human: Chimes, Calvin’s student newspaper. From the pages that brought readers, completely unironically and unknowingly, a picture of Hillary Clinton with a giant marijuana plant as the backdrop, to the grown-up newsroom that filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the police department in order to investigate an incident that happened on campus—Chimes, I love you.
It’s very easy to love a particular kind of journalism, the kind that the Washington Post and the New York Times publish every day, that plays a genuine role in shaping national politics and inspires tales of journalistic heroism like All the President’s Men and Spotlight. It’s a lot harder to love journalism that devotes its coverage to the success of the latest KnightLife event and summaries of lectures that happened on campus, and it’s incredibly easy to fall into thinking that it doesn’t do much of anything for the community besides give some students a fun extracurricular experience to be a part of.
But small-scale community journalism is a bit like other things that are hard to see the immediate value of, but are critically important to sustain, like insurance or infrastructure. The sort of things that go unnoticed until a crisis occurs.
Consider life at Calvin without Chimes. The only source of news about the community would be the college’s own publications: the stories on its website and its alumni magazine, Spark. And while I don’t doubt the honesty of the PR department’s communications, there’s no getting past the fact that PR is designed to sell the college to prospective students and to show alumni why they should donate to Calvin. The job of PR is to create an image for Calvin, and that image is what would be left if it weren’t for Chimes.
This is not as hypothetical as you might think; this is the crisis of local news everywhere. Even in communities that have local media, media is often understaffed and underfunded, and can come to rely upon press releases and statements from local organizations to make up the bulk of their news stories and reporting. A Pew Research Center study from 2009 found that in one week in Baltimore, 86% of news stories published or aired in the city originated with a press release or statement—as opposed to original reporting or personal sources.
As the number of journalism jobs in the country continues to shrink, PR numbers grow and grow. Robert McChesney and John Nichols cite a disturbing trend in The Death and Life of American Journalism: in 1960, journalists outnumbered PR professionals by a ratio of 1 to 0.75. In 2011, there were 4 PR professionals employed for every journalist in the country. As a result, increasingly, business interests control what gets to be news and what doesn’t, as well as how news is framed.
Local journalism can disappear without so much as a cry these days, and typically with only halfhearted protestation by the community. But if you can envision this future and the danger it poses for a community, you can learn to love Chimes. Chimes may not expose scandals every week, but it still tells stories the PR department would never tell.
I love Chimes because it taught me that—it taught me what journalism is. Journalism is not really about writing, or learning to interview, or using the pyramid form to structure your story. It’s about discovering your place in a community.
Nothing in a journalism class could have prepared me for the power of the realization that there is a story that needs to be told, and I am the person best equipped to tell it. Perhaps I’m a person who feels the call of duty very strongly—I did drive for six hours in a snowstorm to retrieve a skateboard from a Taco Bell on the other side of the state because I felt I needed to take responsibility for my part in leaving it there—but it felt like that realization genuinely changed me. While the realization came with a particular story I wrote, it wasn’t really about one story, but about the newspaper’s role at Calvin: its fundamental responsibility to its readers.
Chimes, no matter what mistakes you make in the future, no matter how many lecture articles you publish, you will always have my heart. Whether or not your readers see you as essential, know that you are essential to your readers.
You may be a bit dorky. You may feel small and inconsequential sometimes. But I will always love you.
Carolyn Muyskens is a 2017 graduate of Calvin’s English department. She is working as a research assistant studying news media trends and as an assistant at a law firm. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.