Fallen Journalists Memorial: Recognizing the vital role local news media plays in American communities

By Rick Hutzell
Former Editor of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD

Introduction

Thousands of people lined the streets of Annapolis, Maryland, on the afternoon of July 4, 2018, for the annual Independence Day parade. The parade is one of the highlights of the summer calendar in the small state capital. But this year, the crowds were there to celebrate more than the birth of the United States. People crowded the sidewalks and flooded onto the streets to support their community newspaper after the deadliest attack on American journalists in history.[1]

Just six days earlier, the murder of five staff members in the Capital Gazette newsroom galvanized the community around its hometown newspaper. Thousands mourned the dead and supported the survivors.[2] The parade would be the first of many expressions of the importance of the newspaper to the Annapolis area. Some were concrete, including donations to help the families of those killed.[3] Others were practical, such as a rise in subscriptions. All recognized the value of a news media dedicated to local topics.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, himself a subscriber of the newspaper, joined those who recognized its importance.[4] “The Capital Gazette is my hometown paper, and I have the greatest respect for the fine journalists, and all the men and women, who work there,” he said in a widely reported statement. ”They serve each day to shine light on the world around us so that we might see with more clarity and greater understanding.”

What happened in Annapolis was a powerful reminder of what local news outlets mean to the communities they serve. When journalists die while reporting the news, it is a direct threat to that role. While most people understand the risk to journalists on the battlefield or covering brutal regimes, scores have died close to home while reporting on their communities.[5] The Fallen Journalists Memorial planned in Washington, D.C., would appropriately reflect the unparalleled historical significance of that sacrifice and the role of journalism in communities across the United States.

Assessing the benefits

By focusing on their communities, local news outlets, particularly newspapers, help Americans understand what defines their community and ways to make it better. The Capital Gazette remains a prime example of that mission. Prompted by the May 2021 purchase of the newspaper by a hedge fund with a reputation for cutting into journalism resources, the top elected official in the newspaper’s home county sent a letter to the new owners urging them to respect the importance of the newspaper to its community. “Our paper is the heart of our community,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman wrote.[6]

The significance of a local news outlet extends beyond the tragedy of the mass shooting in Annapolis. As government health agencies and national media tried to get information to the public on the nature of the COVID pandemic, some of the most reliable information for communities comes from local news media.[7]

“The horrific spread of the novel coronavirus across America has prompted an outpouring of questions from confused citizens in communities who need answers,” Mark Glazer of the Knight Foundation wrote less than a month into the pandemic. “What will happen to the most vulnerable among us? Where can I get food? How many hospitalizations have there been in my neighborhood? How do I support people who need help? And time and time again, local news organizations have been there to answer those questions with dedicated coverage of COVID-19 (often without a paywall), with reporters literally on the front lines of the crisis.”

Communities with vital local news outlets have lower levels of political partisanship.[8] That impact is a direct function of opinion pages that delve into local issues where broad descriptions of conservative-liberal or party labels do not readily apply. Likewise, the health of local news media contributes to the number of political candidates who participate in local elections.[9] The opportunity to explore problems and opportunities facing a community is an irreplaceable part of a robust political system. That process is crucial to establishing the legitimacy of an elected government.

For the function of government itself, local watchdog journalism, a primary function of newspapers and also a focus of broadcast news media, helps keep the cost of governance down. News reporting on votes, policy initiatives and other issues is an irreplaceable check on democratic government. In finance, those costs include apparent subjects, such as pay raises and capital projects, but also areas such as borrowing.[10]

Perhaps none of this is as important a reminder about the significance of local news as its role in a community’s sense of identity. Washington Post Media columnist Margaret Smith writes that local news outlets create and solidify a sense of identity for a community. “It’s the way a local columnist can express a community’s frustration or triumph, the way the local music critic can review a concert, the deeply reported feature stories, the assessment of a new restaurant, the obituaries, the letters to the editor. The newspaper ties a region together, helps it make sense of itself … serves as a village square whose boundaries transcend Facebook’s filter bubble.”[11]

Conclusion

Newspapers continue to face challenges because of changing economics.[12] Local news media will continue to shape communities across the nation, but only a healthy presence can guarantee many of the attributes Americans take for granted today. A prominent place for The Fallen Journalists Memorial near the National Mall will serve as a statement to the world that a free and robust press represents one of our most essential institutions at a time when its future remains unclear.

The importance of local journalism to the success of our society deserves such recognition.

Rick Hutzell is a member of the Board of Advisors at the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation and the former editor of the Capital Gazette, the Annapolis, Maryland- based newspaper where he worked starting in 1987. Hutzell served as editor of the Gazette from 2015 to 2021. In 2018, a gunman who was angry about the newspaper’s coverage attacked Hutzell’s newsroom and killed five of his colleagues. Despite this tragedy, the Capital Gazette journalists and staff insisted on putting out their next paper only hours after the shooting, remaining committed to their essential role within the community. Hutzell is a champion of local news and its role in our communities. He has also spoken out about the physical dangers journalists face and the economic hurdles, and opportunities, facing the local news industry at large.

To read all of the essays submitted to the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission in support of a prominent site for the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation, click here


[1] Williams, Timothy; Harmon, Amy, “Maryland Shooting Suspect Had Long-Running Dispute With Newspaper.” The New York Times. June 29, 2018.

[2] Pamela Wood, “Annapolis Independence Day parade honors freedom of the press; especially for The Capital.” Baltimore Sun. July 4, 2018.

[3] Joel McCord, “Capital Gazette Families Fund nears $1 million,” Capital Gazette, Sept. 4, 2018.

[4] Mark Osborne and Emily Shapiro, “Capital Gazette shooting suspect barricaded door, tried to ‘kill as many’ as possible: Officials” ABC News, June 29, 2018.

[5] Author’s analysis of two databases recording journalists’ deaths, “Murders of journalists more than double worldwide,” Committee to Protect Journalists 2020 annual report, December 2020; “Journalists Memorial,” Newseum. Undated.

[6] Steuart Pittman, “Open Letter to Alden Global Capital and all of its shareholders.” Anne Arundel County, June 22, 2021.

[7] Mark Glazer, 6 Ways Local News Makes a Crucial Impact Covering COVID-19 Knight Foundation. April 2020.

[8] Joshua P. Darr, Johanna L. Dunaway, Matthew P. Hitt, “Want To Reduce Political Polarization? Save Your Local Newspaper,” NiemanLab, February 11, 2019.

[9] Meghan E. Rubado, Jay T. Jennings, “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States.” Urban Affairs Review, April 3, 2019.

[10] Pengjie Goa; Chang Lee; Dermot Murphy, Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance. Journal of Financial Economics, (2020) vol. 135, no. 2, 445-467.

[11] Margaret Sullivan. “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” Columbia Global Reports, July 2020.

[12] Penelope Muse Abernathy, “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will local news survive?” Husman School of Journalism and Media, University of North Carolina, June 24, 2020.