"If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
I learned that journalistic piece of advice from Bill Hirschman at the Sun-Sentinel about 25 years ago. Bill was typical of the type of people you’d find in city newsrooms across the country in those days. I recall him as bright, curious, enthusiastic, yet properly grizzled and cynical enough to do his homework and not take a politician’s word for it.
The comment about one’s mother said it well. Don’t take everything at face value. Learn your beat, research, dig. You just might break a story.
At the time I knew him, I was a high school stringer, and he was covering the Broward County, Florida, education beat. Bill’s wife, Oline Cogdill, was my patient editor. Broward was, and still is, one of the largest school systems in the country. It’s been in the news a great deal this past year because Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is within the district.
In my early reporting years, I knew many solid local reporters who worked hard to get the news out, cared about their communities, and, although they might not be nationally known, were respected and very much mattered in the cities they covered.
I think of my late friend Allen Levy, may he rest in peace, who produced local news in television markets such as Miami and was responsible for what must have been thousands of stories in his career. Allen was passionate about the news and getting the story right.
These reporters are on my mind as word came this week (Allen and Bill would likely make me recast that last sentence – too ominous – use active voice) that the New York Daily News was cutting its staff by half.
We’ve heard all the arguments about why newsrooms are cutting teams: ad revenue is down significantly and social media and broadcast are displacing the important role of daily newspapers. The arguments are plausible and real both for many journalists and the communities they cover.
Now a PR professional, I, and our whole agency, have a vested interest in watching media live and thrive. Relationships with journalists are our stock and trade. We believe in the power of the media. Nationally speaking, of course, newsrooms are still very strong, and outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg have even expanded.
However, local newsrooms are also in my DNA. I covered local TV news in the first part of my career. I spent my high school years sitting in that Sun-Sentinel newsroom watching hardworking reporters like Bill.
Yes, I’ve also seen local newsrooms where nearly everyone was underpaid and the coverage was uninformed, and not enough attention was paid to the beat. In my early career, youth and inexperience led me to miss coverage, too. The newsroom thrives with the judgment and experience of people who cover the beat and stay a while.
As one pundit said the other night, there’s a sense that politicians can get away without a sense of accountability, and that’s dangerous. I’ve seen that firsthand in my reporting career.
We need local newsrooms to thrive, and part of me is still optimistic that they will, even if they’re online only or in whatever form comes next.
Bill Hirschman himself is a theater critic now and founded his own successful website. I am sure that he still checks the whole story out.
Seth Linden, president of Dukas Linden Public Relations, is a former broadcast journalist who covered Capitol Hill for two NBC affiliates, as well as a stringer for the Sun-Sentinel in Florida.