This isn’t fake news. It’s local news, and it still matters

Voters line up to oust the board of the Tri-County Electric Co-Op, a utility company in South Carolina.
Voters line up to oust the board of the Tri-County Electric Co-Op, a utility company in South Carolina. The State Media Company

The search for truth, the encouragement to ask questions and the freedom to debate the answers are things that our communities hold dear. These things matter. And in many ways, they bind us.

They are central to the future of media as we navigate today’s environment.

It’s an environment that is fractured both in terms of multiple platforms for content and fractured, more figuratively, by the threat that comes from those who claim that not just the new business model but news itself is broken. Fixed. Fake. And those who dispense it are enemies of the people.

Obviously, that’s not a position I or any of us at McClatchy subscribe to.

I’ll return to that point, but first, I’d like to focus on the future of media as it relates to citizens like you and me — neighbors, family, and communities that consume our product. To those who use the service we provide. To what extent is the future of media in your hands, as well as in ours?

Let’s start by looking at a few images.

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Robert Simmons Jr. and his kitten, Survivor, are rescued from floodwaters in New Bern, NC, after Hurricane Florence dumped several inches of rain in the area overnight, Sept. 14, 2018. Hundreds were rescued from eastern North Carolina in the wake of the slow-moving storm. Andrew Carter acarter@newsobserver.com

You may have seen this photo during Hurricane Florence recently.

It was taken in New Bern — a town 300 years old, once the capital of North Carolina and one of the communities hardest hit by the storm. The Neuse and Trent rivers rose 10 feet in a matter of hours, leaving many waiting to be saved.

Like the man in the photo. The name of the man, wearing the anguish of someone who fears for his family and the house they’ve lived in for generations, is Robert Simmons, Jr.

The journalist who took the photo and shared the story works for the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, both McClatchy newspapers. His name is Andrew Carter.

And the cat? The resilient kitten, sitting on Mr. Simmons’ shoulder? His name is Survivor. True story.

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Andrew Holland died while in custody at San Luis Obispo County Jail in 2017, after being restrained for 46 hours. This is a look at the events that led to his death, the county’s response and the inmates who have died in custody since Holland. The San Luis Obispo Tribune

This disturbing photo is of Andrew Holland. He suffered from schizophrenia and for years, he had been in and out of county jail, mostly on low-level offenses. In the image, captured by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office in California in January 2017, he was 36 years old.

He died just moments later.

County officials ruled the death as “natural,” resulting from a blood clot. But a team at The Tribune, another McClatchy newsroom, led by reporter Matt Fountain, discovered something else. Mr. Holland had been strapped to a restraint chair, naked, for nearly two days.

Think about that. Two days.

Their reporting — and only because they were reporting — led to the county changing the way it treats the mentally ill.

In the next image, you see that these people are not in line because they are waiting at the polls, but they are all waiting to vote.

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Voters line up to oust the board of the Tri-County Electric Co-Op, a utility company in South Carolina. The State Media Company

They were about to vote to oust the board of the Tri-County Electric Co-Op, a utility company in South Carolina. More than 1500 Tri-County customers showed up — on a Saturday. In August.

The line stretched around the company headquarters. Why? Because The State newspaper revealed that the part-time board had paid itself more than three times the national average. They bought themselves health care and retirement plans, treated themselves to expensive steak dinners and signed off on their own Christmas bonuses. The board even fought successfully against a proposal to limit its own pay.

Needless to say, when they found out about the corruption, customers were not happy.

They found about because of Avery Wilks. He works for The State. And he’s the one who uncovered the massive corruption and continued to report on it.

All of these stories have something important in common. And they also highlight some individual lessons pertinent to the future of media.

Let’s start with the image of Robert Simmons, Jr. and his kitten. The lesson here for the future of media is just how we got to know him. The tools we used. Andrew Carter posted this picture and a video on Twitter, and it went viral.

It was retweeted tens of thousands of times. And then it made its way to front pages of newspapers across the country and to websites like CNN. Soon, Mr. Simmons was the “face of Florence.”

News — or how we deliver it to the customer — is a lot different from when I started. And in many ways, news companies are still figuring out how to deal with that challenge and remain profitable and sustainable.

I once heard someone joke about the news, at least the news as I knew it when I was in college and just getting started. They said, what did you expect? Your business model was literally throwing yesterday’s news at people’s houses. How long did you really think that would last?

For me, that’s a fascinating challenge. I left journalism to become an entrepreneur and a technology executive. I came back, first to the board of McClatchy and then as its CEO, because I’m excited about bringing that technology expertise to the cause of independent journalism. And we’re hard at work doing that.

What we call the Fourth Estate plays a role in our discourse and in our democracy that no branch of government can. That no other agency of our civic ecosystem can.

That role has not changed. But the challenge is finding ways to use technology to reinvigorate it.

The question is how to do that at McClatchy — a company whose story dates back to the Gold Rush before the Civil War. We were founded in 1857. In an America — like today — bursting with promise and opportunity and laden with challenge and oppression that would result in the devastating civil conflict then just over the horizon.

Today, at McClatchy, we are driving technology transformation in a company that now operates a digital network that spans 30 local markets from California to Florida, from Washington state to Washington D.C.

That is something I wanted to be a part of. And it’s why we talk about relentless innovation and about what we call “experimenting with purpose.” It means changing in smart ways that make our products even more essential. Maybe it’s Twitter. Or Instagram. Or podcasts. Or video content, whether in documentary form or streaming a live event.

How do we connect with customers and advertisers? In this digital age, when technology really must be stamped into our DNA, as it is with our customers, it’s all of the above. The reality, of course, is that we often have to do that with smaller teams and less revenue.

The golden age of family-owned newspapers is a thing of the past. But smaller or fewer doesn’t mean you can’t be better. In fact, you have to be better. I joked about the paper boy throwing yesterday’s news. Think about that in a different way, one that makes the news business unique. From a product standpoint, anyway.

What other industry do you know where the customer doesn’t know what they’re going to get each day? With that being the case, you need to build a relationship. You need trust. You have to be close to the customer. And a big part of that is going to the customer. Even if it requires reinvention, you have to deliver the product in ways that are relevant to their lives.

It’s not the only way, though. And reinventing doesn’t mean abandoning values. And that brings me to the picture of Andrew Holland, the mentally ill prisoner who died in a jail cell.

Here is something we value: the idea that an independent press in the public interest is not just vital to our democracy, but is also unique to it. And I would go a step further and say it’s more than an independent press — it’s a fiercely independent press. That’s what it was when newspapers published the Declaration of Independence. That’s what it was in 1857, during the California Gold Rush, when James McClatchy’s newspaper, only days after he became editor, exposed the California state treasurer’s corrupt dealings.

And that’s what it was in San Luis Obispo when reporters shined a light on what really happened in that prison. Did they shine that light in a pretty dark corner? Yes, of course. Did shining that light maybe make some of us uncomfortable? You bet it did.

But sometimes, that’s exactly what’s required when your goal is to help people lead more informed and fulfilling lives. To help strengthen communities and make them better. To speak truth to power. To hold the powerful to account.

That is what an independent press does. And what these reporters do matters. And it matters to our way of life and our democracy.

Not everyone seems to agree. They hear something that makes them uncomfortable, or that they do not like, and say it must be fake. Let me suggest this. When you hear “fake,” what they really mean is political. And my hope is that term is little more than the pet rock or the Chia Pet — something that takes the nation by storm until consumers quickly see it for what it is: a gimmick.

When you hear the term “fake,” I’d ask you to reframe the observation.

Ask yourself instead: What is the news the person asserting the fakery is actively trying to stop me from considering? And why?

Put these assertions of fakery to the test. Incessantly. With intention. And judge for yourselves. That’s not to underestimate the threat of misinformation, or fake news, or the ease in which people buy into fear and the politics of demagoguery.

Consider that a man read a conspiracy theory online, believed it was “real” news and showed up at a Washington, D.C., pizza shop with a gun before he was stopped. Even more tragically, when someone wasn’t stopped on time, he entered a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, and killed five journalists.

No, we can’t ignore a climate where people might think an independent press is political, not patriotic. What then should we do?

Marty Baron of The Washington Post put it well. He said journalists shouldn’t go to war, they should go to work.

As a counter to the cries of fake news, I’ll offer this: When people in the Carolinas needed help during Florence, or in Florida during Irma, they didn’t read tweets from the News & Observer or the Miami Herald and think in partisan terms.

Instead, they saw the source as a name they knew well because of a relationship built over time. Consciously or not, they made a snap decision: This isn’t fake news; it’s local news.

Local news plays it down the middle. Readers think: They know me. And I trust them.

If anything, perhaps there is a silver lining. Maybe, just maybe all the talk of fake news and enemy of the people has forced people to consider just how much they value an independent press, their relationship with that independent press and the role that press plays in our plurality.

Especially, when it holds the powerful to account, as it did in California, and as it did with the customers who showed up to oust the board of Tri-County Electric.

Each of these stories offers something important about the future of media. Each of the journalists had in their hands stories that were all profoundly local. And in part because of that, they were are all transcendently human.

Robert Simmons, Jr. and his kitten, Survivor. The appalling way Andrew Holland was treated and the reforms now in place because someone shined a light. Citizens coming together to show their collective power to right a wrong.

These are specific to time and place. Yet, each speaks to all of us, our sense of compassion, fairness, humanity. I have a McClatchy bias, but these stories are indicative of the very best of local news. The very best of a fiercely independent and relentlessly innovative press.

Finding ways to deeply connect with our customer — in both content and delivery. Being essential to our advertisers and our communities. Vigorously investigating and confidently reporting on the best knowable version of the truth. Doing it the right way and dealing with the consequences. That is an American tradition. It’s a patriotic pursuit. And more of that is the future of media.

While it’s up to us to do our job and execute on the promise of an independent press, you’ll be the consumer of it. The job of holding the powerful to account is hardly the media’s responsibility alone. It’s yours, too.

So, vote in a couple of weeks. That’s not a political ask; it’s a civic one. Speak up and be heard. If we’re not doing our job, if we drop the ball, if the institutions we depend on do not meet the standard we expect and deserve, tell us.

The novelist, Toni Morrison ago, shared a parable in her speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was about a young child who thought he could outsmart an old, blind woman known for her wisdom.

He approached her, grasping a small bird in his hands, and asked: “Is this bird dead or alive?” His plan was, if she said, “It’s alive,” he would squeeze the life out of the bird. If she said it was dead, he would let the bird fly away. Either way, he would be right.

“Old lady, is this bird dead or alive?” She stood there silent. The boy started to laugh. Then she spoke. “It is in your hands.”

Media companies will have a lot to say about the future of media. But so too will those who pursue knowledge, seek justice and serve others.

Create a space where people can debate, disagree but still “dwell together in unity.” Can you do that? The answer is in your hands.

Craig Forman is president and chief executive officer of McClatchy. Forman’s column was adapted from a speech he delivered to students at the Babson Center for Global Commerce at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee on Oct. 15, 2018.