At Large: The newspaper marathon

Some news stories are fun. Fun to research, to write, and to read. We smile, you smile, no one is wounded, or at least not terribly, and many are pleased, their profiles raised and, sometimes, enhanced.

Reading such stories, one might find oneself astonished, saying, “Hey, sweetheart, you know that guy who used to live next door to us on Tea Lane, the paper says he just saved some kid’s life the other day. He was casting when he fell in the water by accident, while he was fishing from the Big Bridge. He fell just when the child in the water was going down for the third time. He came up next to her, figured out what was happening, and dragged her to shore. I always thought he was a pretty good guy. It says he is a cancer researcher in Hartford, working on a new drug to prevent colon cancer. Who knew?”

Or perhaps you found yourself chuckling at the story a few years ago about the rampant turkey gunned down by a Chilmark police officer. That one had a smile or two in it and was only mildly wounding to the officers who were attacked. No humans were harmed, except perhaps emotionally. It was the sort of story that makes the lives of reporters and editors as fun as they from time to time are.

But, the smiles don’t predominate in community news coverage. Leaving aside for a moment the plays, movies, books, music, dance, good deeds, births, anniversaries, sports, club activities, fundraisers, and parades we write about each week, the news core of a weekly community paper like this one is heavy with zoning/planning issues, budgets, taxes, school committee activities, law enforcement, court news, auto accidents, boating accidents, land disputes, economic development, conservation, and the like.

A good deal of this core stuff is distressing or exasperating, and some of it is heartbreaking, especially when there’s the phone call from an embarrassed or abused neighbor or friend, whose life has been tilted by something we’ve published.

Still, as I’ve often written, the reward of the weekly community news business, particularly in a smallish setting such as this one, is that one gets to follow the lives of neighbors, from birth announcement to obituary, from a newcomer’s arrival at her first Island address to her departure for another address, in the afterlife or on the mainland. The weekly paper’s job is to tell as many of the stories of these human trajectories as it can, as these neighborly characters appear and recede in the rich variety of their community roles over the years.

In fact, a lot of this news is pedestrian. It’s like the interminable, witless, banal coverage of a presidential election race or primary. This one’s in, this one’s out. This one’s up, this one’s down. You’re a moron, no you are. The finance committee demands budget cuts, the school committee says no can do, and besides the finance committee doesn’t know or care about education. Or, at the bottom of the drama barrel — in other business, the selectmen appointed so and so the new town fence viewer. Yawn.

But, then there are stories like the one about the legal struggle between Brazilian workers and an Edgartown summer couple who wanted their snazzy house remodeled. This was a story whose bones we’ve been looking for, knowing that such disputes live in the economic circumstances in which Islanders live these days. In this case, the ingredients — not every one a reporter dreams of, perhaps, but sufficient to illuminate the problem — were as distressing as any we have published in The Times’ 27 years in business. Distressing to us as we gathered, reviewed, and evaluated the reporting. Distressing to write. Distressing to readers, as well as to the persons written about.

The light it shed is why it was a story, a story only a newspaper could tell — as complete, modulated, and hype-less as it might be. A story that shone a light, not only on the behavior of the people involved, but also on the unusual kind of business dealings that develop between those who’ve put themselves in risky positions and those who are prepared to accept the advantages that accrue to them because of the circumstances, legal and political.

There are several myths about newspapers. In the comments and letters that followed publication of this story, a few readers invoked these myths. One myth is that newspapers can only report what official sources, such as the courts, the police, the FCC, the White House, the Obama administration, the EPA, the Edgartown selectmen, or you name it, permit them to report. Or, that private disputes ought to be left private.

Thank the Founding Fathers, that’s not the case. And because it’s not, there are all sorts of newspapers, some focused on international news, some on community and commercial boosterism, some on small town myth-making, some on the sad, sordid, and self-promotional antics of the celebs, or on the 90-year-old who gave birth to the Mr. Bean look-alike, or, well, you name it. Choose your poison.

Another myth is that you can only report what someone official has confirmed. Or, that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, so the reporter must say allegedly at least twice in every sentence. And, astonishingly, there’s the myth that holds that some stories are so embarrassing or humiliating or ghastly that they ought to be kept secret, by the newspaper, by those involved in the story, and by and from the community as a whole. None of this is true.

Newspapers, unlike broadcast television or radio, are private enterprises, free to publish what they choose, as they choose, when they choose, whether it’s official or not.

Of course, along with this freedom comes associated risk. Publish stuff that is not true, or that nobody wants to read, or enough other stuff that readers find repugnant or merely not what they expected, and poof, you’re out of business, or maybe in court. But, the general rule is that when community newspapers publish stories that are sufficiently interesting, that obviously have the interests of the community of readers at heart, and that alert readers to matters that need attention and correction, such newspapers endure, as we have.