Given the tensions in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, it was a relief to receive news of the guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. Those verdicts owed much to a vastly more competent prosecution–and there has been widespread recognition of that fact and praise for that prosecutor.
What is far less widely recognized and celebrated, however, is that the trial wouldn’t even have occurred had it not been for a local reporter.
Larry Hobbs is the crime beat reporter at the Brunswick News, and he covered the initial story, which was pretty bare-bones. He got his information from the local police:: a burglary suspect had been shot and killed in Satilla Shores, a subdivision outside Brunswick, Ga.
The next day, a Monday, Hobbs managed to get Arbery’s name from the coroner and included it and a few more lines in a followup story. Then he wrote about the close involvement of district attorney’s office investigators in examining what happened, and about official silence on whether the incident was being investigated as a possible homicide or case of self defense. Those were the first of many stories Hobbs would write about the shooting on Satilla Drive in February 2020, an event that would go on to seize national attention. He fit that work between other daily news, his column and a crime blotter he writes….
Hobbs’ reporting ultimately played a major role in getting larger news outlets—and eventually civil rights groups and state law-enforcement agencies—interested in digging into what had happened. Hobbs and his many questions produced work that, while he himself admits it wasn’t always perfect, served a critical need. Now, almost two years later, with Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan having been convicted of murder and other charges, the weight of that role is clearer than ever, and at a moment when the future of local news reporters and newspapers is in jeopardy.
If Hobbs hadn’t been part of a local newspaper covering local news–if he hadn’t been “doing journalism”– the original prosecutor’s conflict of interest and actions covering for the McMichaels might never have come to light. When we talk about the “watchdog function” of journalism, this is what we are talking about.
The state of local journalism is widely, and correctly, understood to be grim. About 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics.
Yet what is missing from these raw facts — depressing as they sound in the abstract — is a detailed sense of what, exactly, is being lost: the local controversies, wrongdoings and human-interest tales that are severely underreported or entirely untold.
The Post devoted the entirety of its Sunday magazine to stories that had been under-reported–or in several cases, not reported at all. (Some had been previously covered by outlets that are trying desperately to preserve a market for local journalism against long odds; others were reports that were seeing the light of day for the first time.) All of them deserved “more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.”
I have previously posted about the continuing loss of journalism. Those of us bemoaning that loss are not talking about the loss of newsprint–the loss of physical paper. That is immaterial. We are talking about the loss of journalism, which can certainly be delivered digitally. As the Post reminded readers, in the last 15 years, a quarter of U.S. local newspapers have ceased publishing. Not just ceased producing newsprint–ceased publication. “By 2020, out of the 3,000-plus U.S. counties, half had just one local newspaper of any kind. Only a third had a daily newspaper. Over 200 counties had no newspaper whatsoever.”
And that doesn’t even count the places like Indianapolis that do, theoretically, still have a newspaper–places where corporate ownership (in our case, Gannett) has decimated staff and eviscerated coverage, leaving communities with what are called “ghost” papers.
The Post used its special issue to remind readers that we don’t know what we don’t know–and a lot of what we don’t know is important.
When we lose local journalism, we lose a fabric that holds together communities; we lose crucial information that allows democracy to function; and at the most basic level, we lose stories that need to be told.