OPINION: The editor rows into the sunset

Goodbye columns by editors always include some mandatory items.

A fond memory of the editor’s first day in a newsroom (it involved carbon paper and typewriters). At least one mention of some embarrassing error (there are too many to mention). A personal technological history – from hot-lead typesetting to Twitter. And, of course, what said editor’s next “adventure” will be. You get the idea. But I’d rather look forward than look back.

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So, as I step into retirement after more than 40 years in journalism I’ll just cut to the chase. 

 “We’re in a lifeboat…”

For several years, I’ve started our editorial planning meetings with those words.

The analogy has been true in so many ways. Our little local media lifeboat is floating on uncharted waters. We have had few provisions during this voyage to sustain us. We’ve been holding our collective finger in the air to check the way the wind is blowing and navigating by the stars. We’ve depended on each other and our wits to figure out if we should be heading north or south. We’ve had to, sadly,  throw fellow travellers overboard so the rest of us could survive. Our only constant in this journey is the firm belief that people care enough about where they live that they value local journalism.

It’s been our guiding star. And, so far, it hasn’t failed us. So far.

We believe the hunger for real local knowledge, local stories – not empty content calories designed to titillate – has kept us rowing and writing. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of serious, sad-faced fun killers. We understand that life is not all about tax hikes and political misdeeds. We have been known to do ice cream reviews and cat videos. But it does mean, as journalists, we hope not just to reflect our community like a mirror, but also to look behind the mirror. To be the watchdogs on duty, to hold those in power accountable. Do we always hit the mark? No, not always. But when we do, we’ve earned the right to call ourselves journalists. 

I have been blessed to have quality journalists at my side who care deeply about their jobs and journalism. Without that camaraderie and commitment, frankly, I wouldn’t have lasted. “Journalism is a team sport,” writer Pete Hamill said, and he was right. It can also be one of the loneliest jobs. Facts are sometimes uncomfortable things to read when they contradict our emotional assumptions.

But local media is at a critical crossroads. You’ve probably already heard about it. Our footprint continues to grow online as we  follow – and chase – our readers. The problem is that Facebook and Google are making money off our work much more so than our own company. As Tim Shoults, our company’s V.P. of Content and Audience Development said in a recent TedTalk: “... at a local level, now you’ve got news sites making fractions of fractions of pennies online, and that just isn’t going to be enough to keep the doors open and pay reporters for much longer.”

How do we fix it? Well, there are several ideas – some involving tax fixes, philanthropy, subscriptions, etc. I don’t know which one may have legs, if any. Or if a combination will work. But what I do know is that they all rely on one thing: a community that understands the importance of local journalism in a healthy democracy. A community that cares enough to give a damn about local journalism. A community that understands that Facebook and Google are not going to send reporters to cover the local city council or courts or civic elections. Local news, local matters, is more than a catchy slogan. The Record is the only newspaper in the world that gives a damn about New Westminster. Other media outlets may drop by to score a big news story, but we’re here for the May Days and the unsolved murders. The long slogs on high school stories. The backstories on planning decisions.

But caring sometimes isn’t enough. The challenge is, can we keep digging for those stories given the changing times. The kind of stories that make you talk to the neighbours about them. The kind that forces politicians to answer the tough questions. The answer is: I don’t have a clue.

Are we, as some might suggest, going to become the equivalent of the local farmers’ market? Is that possible for local journalism? That’s not a bad image – but is it sustainable?

Or will it take the loss of quality local journalism for citizens to realize what they’ve lost? Will it be too late at that point?

Editors are seldom considered optimists. But I’d like to believe more people are realizing that trusted local journalists may be the final, albeit, smaller antidote to the Facebook global machine. I hope so.

But it’s truly a double-edged social media sword. We use Facebook to engage with you as we cover this community. It’s just one of our tools – but it’s an important one. We need you to “like” us, so our local journalism has a better chance of gaining traction and views. Hopefully, Facebook will recognize its role in potentially helping local journalism and step up to bat. Again, I hope so.

But, alas, another editor will be pondering the future as I row my own personal lifeboat into the sunset. If the new editor has one-tenth the fun I’ve had in the editor’s chair, they will be one very lucky editor.

Pat Tracy, is, until Friday, March 23, the editor of the Record and its sister paper, the Burnaby NOW.

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