If you wonder what exactly the Save the Free Press initiative hopes to save, take a look at “Local Matters.”
The free email newsletter highlights investigative reporting from around the nation that you might not otherwise hear about.
Week after week, it feeds readers examples of watchdogs at work, carrying out the role envisioned by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. That kind of journalism becomes increasingly rare as corporate owners disinvest in newsrooms and newspaper chains increasingly fill their papers with bland regional stories instead of sharply focused local investigations.
On 150 Sundays since the fall of 2016, a team of volunteers led by a reporter named Joey Cranney scours the latest work of small, medium and large news organizations to find and share the best hard-nosed reporting by news organizations other than the mega-outlets: The Washington Post and The New York Times. Local Matters has 4,000 subscribers, no budget and an important mission.
If you cherish watchdog journalism, you’ll cheer The Visalia Times Delta’s April 3 report that a California nursing home hit by a COVID-19 outbreak had a long history of regulatory fines. Striking a blow for informed citizenry, The Hilton Head South Carolina’s Island Packet revealed on July 27, 2019 that Beaufort County officials spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars from a murky bank account with no public oversight. Bad news like the illegal dumping of carcinogenic asbestos in a Sioux Falls, S.D., city landfill, reported in the December 28, 2017 edition of the Argus Leader is good news for democracy. It means the free press system works.
Anyone can subscribe, but Local Matters is a must-read among journalists who aspire to do important work no matter how big or small their newsroom is..
Therese Bottomly may be the editor of a metro daily that’s won eight Pulitzer Prizes, but the Portland Oregonian’s newsroom boss said she reads “Local Matters” for ideas and inspiration. “It’s just really gratifying that there are so many great journalists still working in the field…still dedicated to watchdogging and exposing problems at the local level,” she said Wednesday.
Her counterpart at Portland’s feisty smaller paper, the Willamette Week, reads it, too, to feed his head and his heart. “I take a little bit of support and solace,” said Nigel Jaquiss, “as this industry declines, from seeing that small publications continue to do great work around the country. Other small publications are still swinging for the fences.”
Jaquiss knows all about punching above his weight class. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 by unearthing the long-hidden story of Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl. Jaquiss said he combs Cranney’s compendium each week, looking for ideas for his own staff.
That search for role models and ideas was what got Local Matters started. In the fall of 2016, Cranney was a recent college graduate working at the Naples (Florida) Daily News and grew tired of presidential election coverage. “I craved good investigative journalism. Our hunch was that a lot of the country’s investigative journalism was coming from local papers, but it was hard to keep track of it.”
Turning his eyes away from the mega-papers, he found good examples and started sharing them in a simple email newsletter, free of charge that reaches thousands.
He was encouraged to do it by his journalism school’s dean, former Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman. “I thought it was a terrific idea,” Boardman said in a phone interview. “Something I have thought about a lot over the years is just all the fantastic local investigative journalism that’s gone on over the decades that has changed laws and saved lives that most people don’t know about.
“In a lot of these newsrooms, reporters are working for pennies, they’re not getting a lot of thanks and recognition in their own communities,” Boardman said. “To have somebody recognize the work they’re doing and to see it get national attention, that’s huge.”
Cranney admits to advancing two agendas. “Local reporters who do work that’s just as important as those national reporters deserved recognition. I also have aimed at making working at local newsrooms cool.”
Now the government and projects reporter at the Charleston, South Carolina, Post & Courier, 27-year-old Cranney hopes to follow the path of his hero, Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre, who has worked his whole career in West Virginia, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2017.
“I really admire any young journalist who goes off to a new community and learns how to cover cops, courts,” Cranney said. “I think that’s the way we build our careers and sustain long-term, investigative journalism.”
Amen, Joey. Go get ’em.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.