Twenty-six years ago, I walked away from the best job in newspapers: a gig where I had extraordinary freedom, a twice-weekly column and a chance to write stories and shoot photographs on a wide variety of subjects.
Burnout forced my departure from The Alton Telegraph, a daily newspaper in downstate Illinois. After 11 years of non-stop work and too many missed vacations, I needed a break. So Amy and I packed everything we owned into a Ryder truck and headed for Washington and my new career working in the nether world of politics.
It would take a decade to get back to journalism. I made a lot of money on the political side of the fence but that wealth came with a high price tag: ethical lapses, alcoholism and more than a few sleepless nights.
Now I’m sober 13 years, five months and 15 days. I sleep soundly at night. As for ethical lapses, some would say ethics and journalism don’t mix. I disagree but that’s another debate for another time.
We left Washington in 2004 and moved full time to Floyd, I left most of the world of national and international journalism behind. I still write for a national political news web site that I started in 1994 but most of my energies nowadays focus on local news and events through writing and photography for this site and The Floyd Press. After being away from local news for so long, I forgot that what happens locally more directly affects each of us.
A new poll by The Associated Press find widespread unease and discontent in America. Reports the AP:
There is a widespread unease-shared by 77 percent-that the country has meandered off in the wrong direction. Nearly all Democrats and more than six in 10 Republicans think the country has taken the wrong course. And although almost half express interest and hope in the upcoming elections, a third voice frustration-particularly Republicans.
That same unease can be found here in Floyd County, where Republican voters turned out three incumbents in the primary caucus earlier this year and then sent two of the winners of that primary packing in the general election two weeks ago.
The morning conversation at Blue Ridge Restaurant centers around local problems: rising taxes, the county’s financial crisis, increased drug use among kids, poor roads and a general dissatisfaction with local officials.
As a reporter, I tend to listen when people start talking about problems and folks around here are talking a lot. There’s a wealth of news to report right here in Floyd and those stories need to be told.
The late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say "all politics is local." The same should be said for journalism but local journalism is in trouble in many areas of the country and the problems are increasing.
Few local journalism outlets are locally owned. Media General owns The Floyd Press and Channel 10 in Roanoke. Landmark Communications owns The Roanoke Times. Channel 10’s local broadcast control room is not in Roanoke but is a "regional" facility in the Midwest. Many newspaper chains are experimenting with "centralized" copy desks where editors hundreds, sometimes thousands, miles away edit copy for the local paper. Such "regionalization" diminishes the importance of local news in favor of "canned" stories that can be recycled through the various outlets of a large media organization.
This leaves more and more seekers of local news turning to alternative outlets: Free weeklies like the New River Voice or subscription-based startups like The Roanoke Star-Sentinel as well as blogs that also serve as "hyperlocal" news sites.
That places a lot on responsibility on the shoulders of bloggers and those who successfully fill the gap will be the ones who turn the focus away from themselves and spend more time discussing what is happening in the community.
We’re also seeing signs that the journalism community is waking up. The Roanoke Times is featuring the works of area bloggers on their web sites. Projects like The Knight Community News Network are focusing on hyperlocal news efforts and forwarding thinking journalism teachers like Bob Stepno at Radford University discuss citizen journalism with students.
When Amy and I moved to Floyd County in 2004, I did more than just return to my childhood home.
I came home to journalism as well.