Why I Started Reading the Local Newspaper

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One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to read more local news. I realized that nearly all the news I had been getting was from national sources: major national newspapers, a handful of magazines, a slew of email newsletters, a couple podcasts, and some NPR

I live in a community of 10,000 people about 15 miles from Salem, Oregon. We don’t get any local TV stations at home. (I’m not sure Salem even has a broadcast TV station.) Though we’re just an hour from Portland, most Portland news isn’t relevant to my town. We do receive one semi-monthly newspaper, Our Town. Besides that, though, the only truly local news I got was whatever friends sent me, and whatever tidbits made their way through the Twitter and Facebook algorithm gauntlet. 

The problem with me getting my news only from distant sources was twofold. Let’s call them impotence and ignorance.

  • I was getting worked up mostly about big national and international news, where my sphere of influence is negligible. 

  • And I was missing out on local stories, including some important things I should have been getting worked up over. 

As the New Year approached, I started by canceling or unsubscribing from everything except The New York Times online; The Dispatch, a favorite conservative news site; and a daily newsletter I get from Axios

Then I subscribed to the print edition of the Statesman Journal. Based in Salem, the Statesman Journal covers the mid-Willamette Valley, as well as state government, and national and international news. (Like many local-ish papers, the Statesman is owned by a big media company—in this case, Gannett, the same corporation that owns USA Today.) It also has a special Wednesday edition branded as the Silverton Appeal-Tribune that includes one or two stories about my specific area.

A second newspaper is Our Town, a print publication that gets mailed to everyone in the region twice a month. Our Town is a mix of human interest stories, updates from the City of Silverton and local school district, and hard news. I have two friends who are reporters for Our Town. (One of them, Melissa Wagoner, recently interviewed my wife and I, along with our two housemates, for an article she wrote about cohousing.)

Six months into my New Year’s resolution, I feel much more attuned now to what is happening in my own community. Every day it seems, there is at least one story in the paper that touches the Strong Towns conversation—articles about new developments, the housing affordability crisis, transportation, the city budget that just passed, and so on.

Earlier this week, the Statesman Journal ran a front-page story about how dangerous it is to walk and bike in Oregon and across the United States. The article spoke extensively about the role of design in creating safe streets. In fact, the article quoted at length Steve Davis, AVP of Transportation Strategy for Smart Growth America and a contributor to Strong Towns.

I also caught, in the nick of time, important stories I’m sure I would have missed otherwise. One example that comes to mind is this article about discussions to build more parking lots in our historic downtown. Embarrassingly, I had no idea this conversation was underway in our community. 

By reading my local papers, I have a better sense of the needs and issues in my area. I also realize as never before that I’m surrounded by potential allies. I’ve read many articles about individuals and organizations in my area who are working to make Silverton, Salem, and the other towns in the Mid-Valley safer, more livable, and more resilient. I remember one article about how local businesses stepped up to build some kids a basketball court. There was something about the simple story—someone notices a need, neighbors step up to address that need—that reminded me of the Strong Towns four-step approach:

  1. Humbly observe where the people around you are struggling.

  2. Identify the next smallest thing you can do to address that struggle.

  3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

  4. Repeat the process.

I work a lot with Strong Towns Local Conversations around the U.S. and Canada. If you don’t know, a Local Conversation is a group of people in a particular town, city or neighborhood who come together to talk about how the Strong Towns approach can be applied where they live. There are currently more than 100 such groups across North America. Something that has impressed me about the Local Conversation leaders I talk to is how they have their thumb on the pulse of their community. Much of that comes from the “humbly observing” mentioned above. And much of it is the network of relationships they develop within their neighborhood. But I have a hunch that something else setting these advocates apart is that they haven’t allowed major national and international events to distract them from what’s happening in their own backyard. I even know of some Local Conversations that run their own hyperlocal blogs and podcasts. Check out Allendale Strong for one example.

A couple months ago, I started a Local Conversation group here in my town. We are mostly on Facebook, though I hope to soon meet in person for the first time. Paying more attention to local news has left me feeling both more informed and more empowered. Not only do I know more of what is going on locally, I’m much more likely—along with my allies in Strong Towns Silverton—to be able to do something about it.

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