Column

Oliver: Community journalism matters because you do

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Words (and photos) matter. Journalism matters. You matter.

Anyone who has worked in community newspapering for any length of time knows that. After all, we are members of the community, too, and what happens here affects us all.

McHenry County is where I grew up. The Northwest Herald, this newspaper, has been where I’ve been a journalist for
28 years.

That’s why those of us who work at local newspapers are cut to the heart by the events last week at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. There, five employees were gunned down by a man who harbored a grudge against the paper because of a column that he felt defamed him.

Killed were editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, special publications editor Wendi Winters, sports writer and editor John McNamara, editor Rob Hiassen and sales assistant Rebecca Smith.

Although many of us did not know them, their job descriptions offer a rich picture of what they did. This newspaper has had its own versions of each. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to have that happen here. Although, sadly, it isn’t all that difficult.

As the details emerged, fellow journalists around the country have shared their own tales of being threatened by disgruntled readers and sources. Many of us have taken more than our fair share of profanity-laced rants that left us shaking afterward. What if this person comes here later?

Despite that, few of us leave journalism because of such a possibility. Usually it’s the low pay and job cuts.

No, most of us feel a profound sense of duty to you, our readers. We feel it’s a mission to inform and report on our communities. We delight in telling stories of the good things that happen to our sports teams, community members and civic organizations. We care about you.

Yet, sometimes bad things happen and questionable deeds need to be exposed. That’s part of our mission, too. Most of you dear Northwest Herald readers get that, but a few still accuse of us trying to “sensationalize” things to sell papers.

A lot is said these days about “fake news,” meant to discredit all journalists. That’s unfair to those of us in the trenches, far away from the political nonsense that spurs such accusations.

Journalists are trained to get both sides, to be objective, to present stories in such a way that you readers get a full picture. It’s not always easy, but that’s why we cite documents and quote official sources.

Yes, sometimes we get it wrong. When we do, we’ll tell you, because we know what we do matters. We want to get it right.

Words matter, which is why it’s so troubling that our society has taken to making threats against those of us who work to keep you informed. Could this divisive climate have emboldened the shooter in Annapolis? It’s hard to say, but it’s not much of a stretch.

There’s a price to be paid to gather and disseminate information. We thank those who continue to support what we do by subscribing, whether in print or online. With a shrinking newsroom, it’s often harder to get the job done, but it’s not impossible. Yet.

The Capital Gazette published the next day despite the shooting because they know they have a responsibility to readers. Those of us in community journalism knew they would; it’s what we do.

It’s what we will continue to do, even if we’re doing it with heavy hearts.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at
jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

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