Column by Sumter Item reporter Ashley Miller: Happy National Newspaper Week! Local journalism is in dire need of support


"There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free or you are not free. I worry that we are not getting enough of the news that we need to make informed judgements as citizens," Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years.

In print. Online. For you. #newspapersyourway.

This can only mean one thing as a journalist - it is National Newspaper Week! As a young journalist who is going on her second year with The Sumter Item, to be able to write a column on National Newspaper Week is a wonderful feeling.

National Newspaper Week recognizes the service of newspapers and their employees across the nation. It is not new news to say that the newspaper has faced its share of challenges through the years, especially since the 1950s when television became more popular. I hope that after perusing this column, your regard for local newspapers will have been elevated.

Local news is pretty much the bigger picture as to why I wanted to become a reporter. I remember growing up and walking with my grandparents to the mailbox every morning to grab the paper. My grandfather would read me the comics, and my grandmother would plan our upcoming weekend based on the events posted in our local newspaper. As I grew older, I would listen closely to their morning conversations with a hot cup of coffee about a recent shooting, fatal crashes, friends they found in the obituaries. The biggest topics that always stuck to me were schools and government. Spoiler alert - I now cover both. But it was a conversation that my grandparents were passionate about; this is where I learned about how our local governments and schools affected not only them, but also me and my fellow peers growing up. This curiosity now has led me to work for The Sumter Item.

In my role as a journalist, my mission is to deliver daily doses of precise, hyper-local news, ensuring that residents in the tri-county area remain well-informed about both local events and the impact of government and school board actions on our community. It's a reminder that the significance of local news rivals that of state and national headlines.

In 2019, the New York State Bar Association issued an editorial that underscored a concerning trend spotlighted by Penny Abernathy, who is nationally known for her "news deserts" research: During the preceding 15 years, our nation witnessed the demise of a staggering one-fourth of its local newspapers, equating to the loss of 2,100 publications. This dire toll included the closure of 70 daily newspapers and more than 2,000 weeklies. Consequently, hundreds of communities found themselves bereft of trustworthy outlets for local news and information. Equally disconcerting, this upheaval in the media landscape resulted in the departure of over half of the reporters working at the surviving newspapers.

I have heard our executive editor, Kayla Green, talk about news deserts and the importance of local news over the past year, and in one of her columns, she starts off with questions to open the reader's mind.

"If there was an organization that told you how the people you elected are spending your tax dollars, would you support it? What if there was an organization that told you how your local school board's votes are impacting your children's education? Would you support it? Would you support an organization that celebrates local athletes, or an organization that follows hometown all-stars through the NBA, MLB and NFL, or one that takes you inside new businesses and restaurants, that finds reliable information to quash or confirm public safety rumors, that highlights kids and adults doing projects or community work, that investigates wrongdoing, that holds public officials accountable, that lists obituaries, weddings, engagements, classifieds, things for sale, pets that can be adopted?"

And she leads into talking about how the tri-county area has that source to find all that information - The Sumter Item. All over the country there have been hundreds of communities like Clarendon, Sumter and Lee counties that have lost this local source over the past few years. What would you do if that source was taken from you? Just read national news? Watch cable news? Cable news gets much of their information from local newspapers, but they usually don't have the time to go as in depth with their stories. National news is, well, in the name: national news. It won't inform you about local topics.

Some might say, "Well I can hear it from my neighbor." This may be true, but have you ever heard of the game "Telephone"? Sometimes information can go down a line so far to the point where some of it is left out, reworded, misinterpreted or even intentionally altered. This is why supporting local journalism is important.

Local journalism is a vital part of democracy, and journalists' work contributes to an informed and engaged citizenry. By providing accurate and relevant local news, we play a crucial role in ensuring residents are well-informed about their community and can actively participate in local decision-making processes.

"Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy," Cronkite said.

You can rely on us to give you accurate information available "In print. Online. For you. #newspapersyourway."

Ashley Miller is a reporter for The Sumter Item and covers Clarendon County.