Opinion Columns & Blogs

This isn’t fake news. It’s local news, and it still matters

The search for truth, the encouragement to ask questions and the freedom to debate the answers are things that our communities hold dear. These things matter. And in many ways, they bind us.

They are central to the future of media as we navigate today’s environment.

So what is the future of media as it relates to citizens like you and me – neighbors, family, and communities that consume our product? To those who use the service we provide. To what extent is that future in your hands, as well as in ours?

Let’s start by looking at a few images.

You may have seen the photo of a man and his cat during Hurricane Florence.

It was taken in New Bern, one of the North Carolina communities hardest hit by the storm. The Neuse and Trent rivers rose 10 feet in a matter of hours, leaving many waiting to be saved.

Like the man in the photo. The name of the man, wearing the anguish of someone who fears for his family and the house they’ve lived in for generations, is Robert Simmons Jr.

The journalist who took the photo and shared the story works for The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, both McClatchy newspapers. His name is Andrew Carter.

And the cat? The resilient kitten, sitting on Mr. Simmons’ shoulder? His name is Survivor. True story.

This disturbing photo of a man shackled to a chair is of Andrew Holland. He suffered from schizophrenia and for years, he had been in and out of county jail. In the image, he was 36 years old.

He died just moments later.

County officials ruled the death as “natural,” resulting from a blood clot. But a team at The (San Luis Obispo) Tribune, another McClatchy newsroom, led by reporter Matt Fountain, discovered something else. Mr. Holland had been strapped to a restraint chair, naked, for nearly two days.

Think about that. Two days.

Their reporting – and only because they were reporting – led to the county changing the way it treats the mentally ill.

In the photo of a long queue, you see that these people are not in line because they are waiting at the polls, but they are all waiting to vote.

They were about to vote to oust the board of the Tri-County Electric Co-Op, a utility company in South Carolina. More than 1,500 Tri-County customers showed up – on a Saturday. In August.

Why? Because The (Columbia) State newspaper revealed that the part-time board had paid itself more than three times the national average. They bought themselves health care and retirement plans, treated themselves to expensive steak dinners and signed off on their own Christmas bonuses.

Customers found out because of Avery Wilks. He works for The State. And he uncovered the massive corruption and continued to report on it.

All of these stories highlight lessons pertinent to the future of media.

The lesson from Robert Simmons Jr. and his kitten is just how we got to know him. The tools we used. Andrew Carter posted this picture and a video on Twitter, and it went viral.

It made its way to newspapers across the country and to websites like CNN. Soon, Mr. Simmons was the “face of Florence.”

News – or how we deliver it to the customer – is a lot different from when I started. And in many ways, news companies are still figuring out how to deal with that challenge and remain profitable and sustainable.

What we call the Fourth Estate continues to play a role in our discourse and in our democracy that no branch of government can. But the challenge is finding ways to use technology to reinvigorate it.

Reinventing doesn’t mean abandoning values. And that brings me to the picture of Andrew Holland, the mentally ill prisoner who died in a jail cell.

Here is something we value: the idea that an independent press in the public interest is not just vital to our democracy, but is also unique to it. And I would go a step further and say it’s more than an independent press – it’s a fiercely independent press.

That’s what it was in San Luis Obispo when reporters shined a light on what really happened in that prison.

That is what an independent press does. And what these reporters do matters.

As a counter to the cries of fake news, I’ll offer this: When people in the Carolinas needed help during Florence, or in Florida during Irma, they didn’t read tweets from The News & Observer or The Miami Herald and think in partisan terms.

Instead, they saw the source as a name they knew well because of a relationship built over time. Consciously or not, they made a decision: This isn’t fake news; it’s local news.

Maybe, just maybe all the talk of fake news and enemy of the people has forced people to consider just how much they value an independent press, their relationship with that independent press and the role that press plays in our plurality.

These stories offer something important about the future of media. These stories are indicative of the very best of local news.

Finding ways to deeply connect with our customer. Being essential to our advertisers and our communities. Vigorously investigating and confidently reporting on the best knowable version of the truth. Doing it the right way and dealing with the consequences. That is an American tradition. It’s a patriotic pursuit. And more of that is the future of media.

Craig Forman is the president and chief executive officer of McClatchy.