There’s nothing more American than a newspaper and nothing more patriotic than your local beat reporter.
When Thomas Paine’s first edition of his pamphlet, Common Sense, launched in January 1776, his passionate defense of independence and freedom over monarchy went viral, stirring the American masses — with an estimated 500,000 copies being distributed across the colonies.
Paine’s coverage inspired patriots to act.
Days before Christmas that same year, in the midst of a full-scale Revolution that wasn’t’ going so well, General George Washington himself ordered that Paine’s most recent essay, The American Crisis, be read out loud to his beleagured troops, fuel for the journey.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine wrote famously.
These remain times that try all our souls.
Voice of OC today stands alongside hundreds of news organizations across America, pushing back against President Donald Trump’s assertion that reporters are enemies of the people, standing up for the notion that a free and independent press is central to our democracy, our freedom.
We are all responding to a call from our colleagues at the Boston Globe, who urged editorial newsrooms today to publicly address increasing attacks against the press and First Amendment rights that have been stirred by President Trump.
The President’s words are fueling an environment where reporters increasingly find themselves under direct attack from local police, administrators and politicians.
Just recently, police detained and harassed colleagues from nonprofit newsrooms in Denver and Milwaukee for doing their jobs as reporters.
We also recently had our own reporter, Spencer Custodio, harassed by Anaheim city police for filming a simple traffic stop involving homeless people near a local park.
The press is not the enemy of the people.
We are indeed, hated by politicians.
That’s mostly because the local newspaper is often times in the position of being the local bullshit detector, especially when it comes to public policy and politicians.
There’s no agency like that in government, no way to check power in real time other than your local newspaper.
Reporters are often the only ones in the midst of public policy debates with no horse in the race. They are the engine mechanics of local government, aiming to flesh out both sides of an argument, help a reader find a conclusion, tell a compelling story.
“Journalism is to politician as dog is to lamp-post,” wrote the legendary Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Menken.
In a democracy, we challenge ourselves. We challenge notions. And we most definitely challenge authority. It’s what fuels change, adaptation.
Reporting enhances quality of life because it holds powerful interests accountable.
It also saves taxpayers money.
Yet let’s not kid ourselves about the hard fact that challenging powerful special interests, especially in real time, is no easy business.
Now, that doesn’t mean newsrooms don’t make mistakes – they do, often times on tone, coverage decisions, headlines, story placement, sourcing, even facts.
Corporate newsrooms also aren’t very diverse workplaces.
That doesn’t make them Fake News.
It makes them human.
And unlike politicians, reporters run corrections when they get facts wrong.
We acknowledge that we are the first, rough draft of history.
We are not fake news.
Now, our industry faces a unique moment in history as delivery of news is rapidly changing before our eyes and the massive corporate news empires of my youth crumble.
That media market collapse has offered politicians of this era a heightened ability to avoid accountability, with many now even embracing direct attacks on the concept of a free press.
Yet it’s also offering all of us a unique opportunity as citizens to stand up.
Non-profit newsrooms like Voice of OC have been founded across America to address many of the dire issues facing corporate newsrooms, in terms of realigning monetization strategy and local news coverage.
Groups like The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and the Local Independent Online Publishers Association (LION) are also working with a host of foundations to help establish a framework that can help non-profit newsrooms develop the needed infrastructure to thrive as an industry.
The most heartening part of being Voice of OC publisher is working with our amazing and visionary donors and sponsors who see the news crisis unfolding before our eyes and have committed the resources here in Orange County to help our newsroom make a real difference over the past decade.
Consider joining those efforts, in terms of supporting local newsrooms – both non-profit and for-profit – that invest in your community.
President Trump has reminded us that Paine’s Christmas message from 1776 remains relevant today.
“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman…”