If there has been one surprising winner since Donald Trump was elected president, it is the national news media.
For all the president’s deplorable accusations of journalists being the “enemy of the American people” or deriding stories he doesn’t like as “fake news,” many Americans have found themselves in the strange position of rallying around the press. News organizations are reporting increased engagement from readers and, above all, increased subscription rates. Papers like The New York Times, after seeing big jumps in readership.
The Washington Post is adding 60 new reporters because of record traffic and digital revenue and, others, like The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, have seen big boosts in subscriptions. Even the cable news networks are seeing a big spike in viewership.
At a time when the media is under extraordinary public assault, the support from ordinary citizens for the work being done in newsrooms around America is heartening.
But here’s a small plea to remember the little guys — the local and regional papers that are, in many ways, the lifeblood of a free media.
I was reminded of the value that local papers provide earlier this month when I sat mesmerized by this deeply reported, expertly written piece in the Indianapolis Star on Vice President Mike Pence’s use of private e-mail when he was governor of Indiana. It’s a story that exposed the hypocrisy of Pence’s accusations against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign over her use of a private e-mail server. This is hardly the first time that the Star has broken important stories. Their recent coverage of sexual abuse of female gymnasts exposed the extent to which USA Gymnastics was hushing up allegations of serious wrongdoing by gymnastics coaches.
There are so many important examples of this kind of local coverage that it’s hard to keep track. In New Jersey, it was the Bergen Record that broke the Bridgegate story, about the governor’s office causing traffic delays on the George Washington Bridge in order to punish Governor Chris Christie’s political opponents. This led to criminal convictions and derailed Christie’s political career.
Back in December, the Charleston Gazette-Mail produced a blockbuster investigative piece on how drug firms poured painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone into West Virginia, contributing to West Virginia’s ongoing opioid epidemic.
It took me a very long time to get over this investigative report in The Dallas Morning News on the horrific abuse and tragic death of Leiliana Wright at the hands of her own parents — and the failure of Texas Child Protective Services to protect this 4-year-old girl from abuse. The paper has done great follow-up work in detailing how state budget cuts hamstring the agency and have left children vulnerable to abuse and murder. The reporting has also helped give impetus to reforming of the system.
A couple of eagle-eyed readers on my Twitter feed brought to my attention this story from the Atlanta Journal Constitution on a local prison where prisoners sneak out and then back in to confinement. They also reminded me of this Arkansas Times expose of state Representative Justin Harris, whose adopted 6-year-old daughter ended up in the custody of a man who raped her. The stories exposed the relatively unregulated practice of “re-homing” adopted children. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times won two Pulitzer Prizes for its investigations of racial inequality in predominately African-American school districts and the issue of neglect in the state’s mental health system. But for me, the one story from the Times that really sticks out is the extraordinary deep dive they did into Florida’s Stand Your Ground law after the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
And if your cup of tea is deeply reported and engrossing local features, I must give a shout-out to this piece from the Globe’s Patricia Wen on the tragic and mysterious tale of the Waldman sisters.
I could go on and on with examples like these. Suffice to say this is the kind of reporting that does more than just inform, it holds public and private institutions accountable. It catalyzes the need for reform and increased public attention. In short, it can have a real impact on the lives of ordinary Americans. And more often than not, these are the same media organizations under the greatest financial pressure. They need the support of an engaged citizenry committed to a free press. Don’t get me wrong: support the Globe (of course), the Times, The Washington Post — all the big-name papers that do great investigative reporting. But remember your local papers: They need your support more than ever.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.