One could say that local reporting and beats were the basis from which newspapers grew to what they are today. While that may not be completely true, it is hard to argue that local reporting didn’t have an impact on how newspaper reporters operated themselves. For some, it would be a training ground for them to hone and perfect their skills so that they could move onto bigger and better things. For others, it could be all they know and care about, covering it 24/7 and becoming a big part in the lives of everyone in the community. According to our book, there has been debate lately over what the exact role of the journalist in the local communities is. Some say that the reporter must be detached and independent from those in the community and remain at the very least objective or neutral about how things turn out. Others say that now the writers must be both a watchdog and a guide dog for the public, both biting the heels of official power and leading citizens towards solutions and common good, as the book says. Oddly, though, many writers seem to be becoming hybrids of the two, bringing out whatever tools they need whenever they need them to make the story as interesting as possible to his or her readers. That seems to be the common trait among the best of the best.
One of the better examples I found came from Dave Umhoefer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who this year (2008) who a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the skirting of tax laws to pad pensions of county employees, prompting change and possible prosecution of key figures (http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2008,Local+Reporting). The first thing that strikes you about this article is the amount of work that both the writer and the newspaper put into it. Umhoefer and the Journal Sentinel spent six months investigating for the article and also hired two financial advisers to help them with their calculations. That is the first key to any successful article, to put lots of hard work and research into it. The more information you can give the reader that they do not already know, the better off you shall be. In fact, because of this article, the county conducted its own review and found that many of the transactions they allowed were illegal and then reported itself to the Internal Revenue Service. You know when you get results like that from your article, then you did something right. Umhoefer also was able to get interviews with some of the officials who got the biggest cuts from taxes, which is always helpful with local articles like this one. It is surprising to see he also got permission from the people to print their names as well. Usually in a situation like this, especially for a local piece, I would expect the people to keep their identity secret. But local people love to know names, especially in a small town, so the more names you can get and print in your works, the better. There is no doubt as to why this article was awarded with a Pulitzer Prize for its deep research and vast information. It is one of the best examples of local reporting that you will find today.
Another fine example of local reporting, as shown by the Pulitzer Prize it won in 2007, was a 12 part article written by Debbie Cenziper of The Miami Herald (http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2007,Local+Reporting). Her article reported on waste, favoritism and lack of oversight at the Miami housing agency that resulted in dismissals, investigations and prosecutions. As with most great articles, it starts with a great introduction to bring in the readers. It doesn’t list any stats or tell any special news. It just gives a great example of what is wrong with the Miami Housing Department: “The dirt lot that cost taxpayers $764,000 sits on a grungy corner just outside Miami, strewn with slashed tires and beer cans and an official white sign, now covered by weeds, announcing Miami-Dade’s promise to the poor: Riverside Homes. Miami-Dade Housing Agency Funded Project.” This is something that immediately gets the reader into the story and gets them emotionally attached to it, as they are more than likely angered by reading this. Another strong characteristic of this article is the great pictures that Cenziper has to accompany this article. She includes many pictures that show just how difficult life is for the less fortunate, particularly those who are directly affected by the lack of effort from the housing department, from those who have yet to have homes built for them to those who are living with children without a place to call home. Add to this the impressive statistics Cenziper was able to find and include in the article, and you have yourself a very strong and powerful piece of work.
A lesser recognized article was written recently by Steve Lyttle of the Charlotte Observer on a local school bus accident that left an 81 year-old woman homeless when the bus ran into and totaled her home (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/local/story/197040.html). Once again, there are some good pictures to go along with this story. It shows the extent of the damage done to the home by the bus and lets the reader feel more like they are actually there, witnessing the action. Lyttle also does a great job of describing in the article exactly what happened, how it happened and why it happened. He lets the reader understand the situation and answers almost any and all questions that the reader may have. It is a very rare event to have something like this happen and Lyttle did a good job of covering it for the local Charlotte audience.
On the same day that Lyttle’s article was published in the Observer, another good local reporting article was published in the same paper, this one written by reporter Victoria Cherrie (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/local/story/197272.html). Her article was written about a church fire that destroyed the building and left church members speechless. In the six months preceding the fire, the church also had at least four break-ins to deal with. Cherrie did some good research for this article and is able to give you significant background information on the event, making you feel even more attached to the story. She is also able to get some really touching quotes from the church members that show their strength in these tough times.
Finally, Jake Mooney of the New York Times wrote an article on fans visiting Yankee Stadium to enjoy it one last time (and for some, the first time) before it is torn down (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/nyregion/thecity/14yank.html?_r=2&ref=thecity&oref=slogin&oref=slogin). He is able to tell the stories of many different people visiting Yankee Stadium and why they are there, making you feel as if you are right there next to the Stadium talking with the individuals. Mooney does a great job painting a picture with words and describing everything that is going on. This is something that many New Yorkers and many baseball fans can relate to. Yankee Stadium has been a huge part of both New York City and baseball for as long as anyone can remember, and it is still hard to believe it will be torn down after this year. Anyone who can write an article like this and make someone feel emotional over that article truly did a great job.