Afterthoughts: Drifting Away

With newspapers struggling, will the art of telling a smaller story be lost?

Photo: Linny Morris


You know the expression “armchair travel.” Well, I did some “couch travel” this past Saturday. It was a soggy, sullen day that seemed tailor-made for my task: reading through a stack of clippings from newspapers in the Northwest.

I was judging stories for the annual Society of Professional Journalists Awards. (To keep the process neutral, our Hawaii chapter swaps entries with Chapter 10: newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.) I had what you could call the Manini Group: community papers with fewer than 25,000 readers.

There’s a certain sweetness and intimacy to the writing you find in small-town papers. Maybe because the reporters wind up interviewing their former gym teacher or their sister’s ex-boyfriend.

 As the hours of reading passed and the newspaper ink rubbed onto my fingertips, I was transported from my green couch to places where the air smells of spruce and the woods crackle mysteriously.

Loggers die in accidents. Kayakers get stuck on small islands overnight. Mammoth tusks are pulled out of a riverbank. Water—cold, rising, spring-swollen, or dripping down through roofs—is a constant companion and frequent foe.

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

In these damp, spruce-y towns, I met a three-legged dog. Discovered which town’s cop car has a dummy, not a real police officer, behind the wheel holding a radar gun. I found that an angry black bear will keep biting, even with three rounds fired into him, and vowed never to visit the Oregon town where the headline read, “Neighbors Upset: 788 rats trapped in Sutherlin home.”

I got so caught up in old news from distant towns that I even started reading wedding announcements and funeral notices. Oh, Shirley, 42, in an accident at home. That’s way too young to die.

Seeing newspaper stories from a fresh perspective made me wonder: As newspapers around the country fade, downsizing coverage and hacking away at staff, who will write the small-town tales? Who will cover those town-hall meetings, or write about a reunion of former telephone operators?

It may surprise you to hear me singing the praises of another news medium, but I’ve never viewed newspapers as competition. We have the same goal—to tell a story—but inhabit different spaces. Newspapers have the luxury of speed, but the responsibility of frequent coverage. They have historically had bigger staffs, with beat reporters to cover life’s smaller details, like the aforementioned town-hall meetings.

We’re not immune to newspapers’ decline in the Islands. While far from small-town, The Honolulu Advertiser laid off 54 employees last summer. In February, the Star-Bulletin announced that it was switching to a tabloid-size format to save on costs, as well as reducing staff and closing bureaus on Maui, the Big Island and Kauai.

Sure, there are other ways to catch up on news—magazines, 900 channels of television, 24-hour CNN, blogs, the Internet. But I would mourn the loss of newspapers.

Stories matter, even when they seem small or trivial. And the people who witness stories and bring them back to us—they matter, too.

Stories need to be captured. Otherwise, they just float away, like logs in a river, swollen by spring rain.