I grew up reading the New York Daily News and other local papers available on Long Island. Perhaps the biggest take-away message from my newspaper habit–and the most influential message, since I wound up becoming a journalist–was that local news is fun.
The clever headlines were fun. The mix of content, from serious to light-hearted, from dense text to compelling pictures to so many other eye-catching elements, was fun. The flow of lively local news–on TV and radio, too–helped to convince me that New York City was a great place, despite all its problems (from which I was isolated). There was energy in the air, some of it foul-smelling but always ripe for communication and conversation.
I came to believe the policies and politics which kept cities vibrant, as well as the civic life of everyday citizens whom I met vicariously, were things I could and should learn more about. The essay I wrote as part of my successful application for graduate study at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs comprised my reflections on a Newsday special report critiquing Long Island’s local governments.
Many aspects of my life were steered by the good news and the bad news I digested in a local context, feeding my imagination and aspirations to empower me for the world. No less a leader than Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill assured me that “all politics is local,” so it made sense.
This came to mind recently when I read about the slashing of jobs at the Daily News, with something like a 50 percent cut in the newsroom staff and an expected re-focusing on “breaking news.” It doesn’t make much sense. From my new vantage point in Indiana, it seems there’s a glut of “breaking news,” and much of it is actually predictable and repetitive, or distasteful and disempowering. Much of it comes from Washington, where the news is often broken–in more ways than one. (Earlier in my career, I loved covering government news in Washington, so you might say today’s brokenness breaks my heart.)
Some breaking news is wonderfully exciting to report and to read, but that occurs more at the local level. This breaking news comes with context, prompting intelligent conversations and challenging us to take intelligent actions as a community.
I expect this kind of breaking news–and local news in general–are going to keep shrinking because cities have fewer local reporters and the national media prefer national stories, commented upon by national celebrities, on shows featuring national advertisers with big budgets. Newspapers like the Daily News will have their distinctive voices further overwhelmed by remotely activated multimedia megaphones that either make information all sound alike or make it sound astoundingly different from one network to the next, leaving audiences and communities unsure what to say or do.
This reminds me of the principle of subsidiarity, a key component of Catholic social teaching, which says higher levels of government ought to let lower levels of government handle the situations that can best be handled locally. This allows for exceptions when larger crises demand the support, or subsidies, that only larger organizations can provide, but it celebrates the empowerment of civic life that more directly engages individuals, families and communities to get them talking and acting together. The local level is where Pope Francis sees much of the missionary work of the Church taking place, where people leave their pews to go out to neighborhood peripheries and accompany their brothers and sisters on complex journeys of joy and sadness, sin and saintliness.
Journalism and news organizations would benefit from applying the principle of subsidiarity more often, with locally owned media covering local events and supporting the processes by which families and community organizations work together to encounter the problems, pleasures and people they can understand best.
As section 1879 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.”
That resonates with me. In a sense, I found my vocation in the newsstands, newspaper racks, and local news shows of New York. There, I sensed society and social cohesion were being celebrated. Even during those years of my youth when society’s cohesiveness was said to be breaking down, the message in the media–at least in a Marshall McLuhan kind of way–honored the goal of social cohesion, the fact that life goes on, the idea that it’s a crazy, needy, newsworthy city in which we all should get along.
At least some of the breaking news suggested that conversation was still possible, thanks to first-hand evidence that a critical mass of folks embraced the goals of truth and trust. Journalists cultivated big ideas with big possibilities when they covered local news–and when we read it. They were having fun, and so was I.