Looking for my uncle’s past offered a glimpse of the lost art of community-centered news. In an era of downsized media and political division, where the few local papers remaining take editorial orders from distant corporate offices, the loss of the puff piece may hurt us more than we realize.
In 1962, at the age of 14, my uncle won the coveted Newspaper Boy of the Year award, sponsored by Parade Magazine and the Dayton Daily News. This honor came with an all expense paid trip to Spain and Lisbon. The DDN gushed about their newsboy with a total of four articles; one with a priceless photo of my uncle in a buzz cut and Buddy Holly glasses reading the award letter, another with an action shot of my uncle showing his substitute the art of paper throwing, another article where uncle Neil confers with the Mayor of Greenville on the gift of basketball uniforms. Finally the triumphant welcome home article where the DDN reported on his “fabulous” trip that included a bull fight, Communist rioters in the street of Lisbon, a visit with the future King of Spain and most importantly Zsa Zsa Gabor. My mind boggles as to how this could have happened to a 14 year-old but it was 1962 and life truly was fabulous.
Two years later my uncle is again in the news, this time announcing his future campaign for President. The article is as laughable as it is baffling. What exactly is going on in this newsroom? You’d be forgiven for assuming he was the editor’s son or maybe a reporter had a crush on him. Whatever the reason, an editor devoted a reporter and column space on a kid’s improbable plans.
It’s a shame that I can’t wrap my 21st century mind around all this media good will and encouragement. On the same page as my Uncle’s “presidential bid” is a story about the area’s first woman bus driver (“the kids say she’s okay!”) and an octogenarian melon farmer who traps varmints in his spare time. These stories are hardly worth the ink used to print them and yet the sweet subtext is brimming with community pride. Imagine this for a second; there once was a time that community news was just presented at face value and, one imagines, Miami Valley residents read these articles and thought “oh, I know her,” or “that reminds me, I need to buy a melon,” and, more likely, “that Neil…what will he get up to next?”
Gone today are not only paperboys and Parade Magazine but also local media outlets with the budget to employ staff to write puff pieces. Not gone, however, is the public’s interest in their community. Social media at times fills that role, if you can ignore the trolls, and some people-centric accounts like “Humans of New York” go viral. Good news and social cohesion are more than mere naive “feel good” notions, they are vital to our national defense. Don’t believe me? Think of the number of US enemies and bad actors creating a daily stream of bots and misinformation designed to anger and alienate us.
I’m sure this kind of wholesome news coverage has its share of detractors, (they are writing outraged comments to this article this very minute), but my uncle grew up in a media environment where it was clear ordinary members of the community mattered, everyone from the mayor to the bus drivers to the paper boys. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that my uncle’s career focused on community activism. He believed that ordinary people mattered, that their efforts deserved a day in the sun. I can’t help but think he got that idea from his local newspaper.
Bethany Karn is a former Daytonian and a longtime subscriber. She lives and writes in Takoma Park, MD.