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Divided communities are putting small-town newspapers to the test of journalism integrity

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In a divided nation where some openly suggest civil war lies ahead, leaders and some elected officials in various communities across the land seem to be intent on producing a script that would bring that about. And thus local media in little-known places like Cottonwood, CA, and McCurtain County, OK, are being put to a real test of journalistic integrity, and even courage.

So this column is about the battle being waged by newspapers in some small towns, suggesting you don’t have to be a major newspaper or one in a major city to be called to serve the people’s right to know. And know with accuracy.

And in an era where many newspapers in towns and cities are being purchased by companies that have been described as corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism for the profits, it’s heartening for advocates of quality local journalism to see that quality occurring..

One of those local journalism dramas is unfolding in McCurtain County in Southeast Oklahoma, where clean rivers and lakes and forested foothills have attracted North Texas residents in growing numbers.

And now it has attracted national attention with an AP story distributed across the country with the lead paragraph noting “the growing optimism about the county’s future took a gut punch.”
That came about when the local daily newspaper, the McCurtain Gazette-News, reported on a conversation among several county officials, including the sheriff and a county commissioner who were caught on tape discussing killing journalists and lynching black people.

The tiny Gazette-News, with circulation of about 4,000 and not even having a website, is locally owned since 1988 by the Willingham family, which also owns the local weekly Broken Bow News.

 But many of the other 200 or so newspapers in the state covered the story, including the role of the local newspaper that broke the story.

Residents gathered over the weekend in Idabel, the county seat, to demand the removal of the local officials. Not the kind of protest those in big cities expect from residents in rural America, such negative expectations amounting to prejudiced and divisive thinking in itself.

The governor has called on the state attorney general to investigate and take action to remove the officials, if appropriate. And the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association suspended three McCurtain County Officials
.
So now over to the Shasta County town of Cottonwood, midway between Redding and Red Bluff in Northern California. And covering the divide that has developed in the community of 6,200 is Dani Chamberlain, a former columnist with one of the local dailies who started an online magazine she named A News Café, that documents local affairs, and readers came with her.

But then Covid shut down the state, and laid bare the bitter fault lines that divided this community.

Residents angry over pandemic closures began filling county meetings, sometimes forcing their way inside, and directed their ire at elected officials who enforced only the minimum restrictions required by the state.
 
One local resident, Carlos Zapata, warned the board of supervisors at a meeting in August 2020 to reopen the county or things wouldn’t be “peaceful much longer.” Chamberlain has written of Zapata extensively, including calling him “an alt-right recall kingpin, militia member, semen-purveyor, former Florida strip-club owner.”
 
And another resident said at a board of supervisors meeting in January 2021: “When the ballot box is gone, there is only the cartridge box. You have made bullets expensive, but luckily for you, ropes are reusable.”

.But there was more than just a backlash under way. The anger coalesced into an anti-establishment movement backed financially by a Connecticut millionaire named Reverge Anselmo, who Chamberlain described as having a longstanding grudge against the county over a failed effort to start a winery.

The response of parts of Chamberlain's community has left her shocked: “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be to be a journalist. I shouldn’t go to my car afraid one of these guys is gonna bash me in the head with a baseball bat,” she said.

And the situation in Cottonwood has attracted international media attention, with a major story last week in the U.S, edition of the respected United Kingdom newspaper, the Guardian.

I reached out to my one-time UPI colleague, William Ketter, long one of the nation’s most respected media executives, for his thoughts and he called fhe McCurtain County situation “beyond the pale.”

“I applaud the courage of the Willingham Family and the McCurtain Gazette-News for pursing public records and aggressively reporting on suspicious conduct of the sheriff’s office and the county commissioners. That’s what good, responsible local newspapers do. They are not intimidated.”

On the news “dark” side, though, there are too many newspapers now that lack the courage to even write stories that would upset an advertiser let alone face threats from some in the community upset at the local news coverage.

Ketter is the senior vice president for news at a newspaper company named Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., (CNHI), which owns 80 local newspapers, mostly dailies, and digital sites in 26 Midwest, Southwest, Southeast and Northeast states.

“My company’s newspapers focus their coverage on common concerns and interests of the communities we serve…We take our watchdog role seriously,” Ketter said.

Ketter’s background, in addition to his time at UPI, includes serving as editor of the Quincy Patriot Ledger, a suburban Boston daily, for 20 years, then editing the Lawrence, MA, Eagle-Tribune, where his staff won the Pulitzer prize for breaking news coverage in 2002.

As a long-time journalist, I’ve been concerned about the future of the daily newspaper industry as it has become the focus of companies like Alden Global Capital, dubbed by vanity Fair as “the grim reaper of American newspapers,” buying them and tearing them down for profits.

Thus I’ve been intrigued by Ketter’s company.

CNHI’s ownership is pleasingly unusual. The Alabama Retirement Systems bought CNHI, which had grown from a handful of newspapers in 1997 to one of the nation’s largest local newspaper groups, in 2019.

And every indication since then is that the retirement systems’ intent is that the newspapers, magazines, websites and specialty products that are part of CNHI make service to their communities a priority, with the premise that profits will follow media done right.
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