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Constance Alexander: Local papers, increasingly rare crucibles of truth, add value to community news

For as long as I could remember, Daddy worked for a newspaper. His first job was as a newsboy on the streets of St. John, in New Brunswick, Canada. He remembered hawking the daily headlines on busy city streets in all kinds of weather. In winter, he swore the snow was so deep, he had to leave home via an upstairs window and snowshoe downtown to get his papers.

Daddy was still an adolescent when his parents died. He left school early and signed up to fight in World War I, serving in Belgium and France. He came back with a Purple Heart , but without a few of his boyhood cronies from St. Malachy’s. He decided to leave Canada and seek his fortune in the U.S.A.

Although I am not sure what skills he brought with him, I know he somehow landed in the newspaper business, not on the editorial side, but advertising. “Where the money is,” he said, adding that without advertising, there would be no newspapers.

My father respected every aspect of the business, as I do. I remember the times he took me on tours of “The Perth Amboy Evening News.” The newsroom, veiled in a layer of smoke, buzzed with activity. Phones rang, typewriters clacked, conversations had the rat-a-tat rhythm of machine gun fire. Desk tops were littered with the ghosts of cigarettes that, left unattended, had fallen from ashtrays and smoldered into scars as they burned up and died.

The teletype machines had a room all their own, where they churned out news from faraway places.

Most exciting was the press room, where words and images were readied for production by a small army of workers. Compared to the reporters in their shirts and ties, they were grimy and rough. So accustomed to the piercing scent of metal, heat, ink and sweat, they seemed not to notice the squalor around them, and never flinched at the near-deafening din of presses that sounded like runaway trains.

If you were lucky on one of these tours, the Linotype operator might give you your name in hot type as a souvenir, but a paper hot off the presses was the best get.

When my father’s paper was bought by a chain, the name was changed to “The Evening News.” Some years after that, it merged with “The New Brunswick Home News,” a regional in the same chain, to become, “The Home News Tribune.” Today it has been pared down to “The News Tribune.” Local news receives minimal space, unless there is scandal or catastrophe to report. (The more sanguine the better.)

Which brings me back to right now, and the fact that there is still a local newspaper in Murray, Kentucky. Reporters are assigned beats and community news is available six days a week on paper, and all the time online. In a state made up of many rural counties and small towns, this kind of coverage is important, though increasingly rare.

According to University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (IRJCI), 16 percent of Americans live in rural communities — some 63 million people and three-fourths of the national landscape – making it essential that local news be covered locally. That is why, every time someone approaches me to comment about my column, I thank them for reading the Murray Ledger & Times, whether their feedback is positive or not.

Al Cross, Executive Director of the IRJCI and former political writer for Louisville’s Courier Journal, wrote last summer, “If your newspaper doesn’t have a slogan or a motto, now might be a good time to come up with one.”

The examples he gave ranged from The Washington Post’s statement: “Democracy dies in darkness,” to the Bristol Herald Courier’s offering, “Truth. Accuracy. Fairness.”

Two of my favorites are from Nevada’s Mason Valley News – “The only newspaper in the world that gives a damn about Yerington” – and Georgia’s Blackshear Times, “Liked by many, cussed by some, read by them all.”

Broadcast journalist and former USC professor Judy Muller, in her book, “Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns,” called the inspiration she garnered from the pages of small-town papers like ours as, “a wonderful crucible of telling the truth, weighing that against living with the people you’re writing about.”

It’s something to be proud of.

More information on the Institute for Rural Journalism is available at www.uky.edu.

Judy Muller’s book was published in 2011 by University of Nebraska Press. Additional information is available at www.goodreads.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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