In these days of the once unimaginable, imagine for a moment that social media and press releases posted to websites were the only sources of local news and information that is vital to everyday life lived under self-quarantine.
Even as the full impact of this pestilence is still unknown and may be weeks, months or years away, imagine that amid uncertainty about the ability of the institutions that underpin life in a small community to meet the challenge of coronavirus, we were forced to sift through Facebook to separate fact from impassioned rant and pure malarkey.
The disappearance over the past decade of daily and weekly newspapers has turned many areas of the United States into news deserts. The reasons are many, but the end result is that many communities have no reliable source of local news and information.
Yet, my small Island of Martha’s Vineyard and its year round population of less than 20,000 has two. It is a luxury that many on the Vineyard take for granted.
In print and online since the advent of the coronavirus, The Vineyard Gazette and the MVTimes are providing readers with information and news stories that bind us even in a time of forced separation. Hospital, school and boatline news, meeting cancellations, births, deaths — it’s all there. As is reader confidence that the reporting is accurate, that the information has been vetted and not simply wrenched from thin air.
In the best of times, publishing a good community newspaper is not easy. These were not the best of times for newspapers even before the corona virus began its deadly global migration.
There is no magic involved in publishing a newspaper. Good reporting takes hard work. Over twenty six years of putting out a newspaper I learned it is a team effort.
A news story is the product of many small judgements that begin with the reporter. He or she is most visible because his or her name appears as the byline under a story, but the editor, proofreader, and production staff all play a role in the finished product.
Newspapering in a small community is a tough job. Mistakes, a result of sloppiness or poor judgement, occur. Not every reader will be happy. And the reporter who stirs up a hornet’s nest doesn’t benefit from the anonymity that large city scribes enjoy.
I was a reporter and I was an editor. More often than not I wore both hats at the same time because that’s how it works at a community newspaper. I know what it is like to have to direct scarce resources to cover a big story, and I covered my share.
There were countless hours spent on the phone, chasing down people, working to get the information I needed to stitch together a story. Reporting is emotionally and physically draining. I had a stake in the community that was the focus of my reporting. All of this took time from my family.
But no story was ever as far reaching as the coronavirus. Each day, each hour brings something new. The pressure on reporters and editors, and on those who must pay the bills to keep it all going, is unrelenting.
And each day readers click on the respective newspaper websites habitually, and as casually as though they were turning on the water faucet in their kitchens. Out flows news and information free for the taking.
This is not a wholesale endorsement. I have my criticisms. But as we navigate these uncertain times, I think it is important to be thankful for those serving on the information frontlines.
Nelson Sigelman is an author and a regular contributor to A Cape Cod Notebook. For 26 years he worked at The Martha’s Vineyard Times. He lives in Vineyard Haven.