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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The power of reading locally

I live in a smallish town, a college town, where we have one of the country’s remaining excellent weekly newspapers, the Addison Independent. For the past several weeks, everywhere I’ve gone in Middlebury — and I do mean everywhere — people have asked, “How are you? Are you better?”

There’s a connection there. And it showed me, yet again, how much having a local paper, reading a local paper, can mean.

I had covid-19 in April. The Independent heard about it in early May, and I got an email from John McWright, the news editor. He asked, “Would you be interested in talking to a reporter about your experience with the virus and the disease? We've been wondering how to get across to readers the idea that it is still a serious thing and they shouldn't let their guard down too soon.” I said, sure.

I knew I was in good hands from the long, detailed phone interview I had with veteran reporter John Flowers. I’ve had the sinking feeling of talking to a reporter who wasn’t really listening, then rightly dreading the result — but John’s story, which led page one in the May 14 issue, was careful, thorough and precise. Not cringeworthy at all.

Except. When I saw my face on top of the paper in its rack in the drugstore I wondered, What'll happen now? Next time I step into a store, will someone rush up with arms waving, saying “No no! Not you!”

What happened was the opposite. For weeks to come, every place I went into in town, someone asked if I was better. “How are you feeling? I saw that story in the paper.” At the hardware store, the food coop, a gas station in the middle of the night. Everywhere. I got so used to it, I kind of miss it now.

This week the New York Times reviewed a new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. In the face of fake news, the paper said, “What [author Margaret] Sullivan writes about is a ‘real-news problem’ — the shuttering of more than 2,000 American newspapers since 2004, and the creation of ‘news deserts,’ or entire counties with no local news outlets at all.”

I have enormous respect for the people who fill the local papers we still have. I couldn’t hack the work, myself; I still have nightmares that I’m back at the weekly I was hired to start, at age 28, with a staff of one reporter and 30 pages to fill. I bailed after two years ... but that paper is still coming out. Like the Independent, it’s what you read to find out, these days, how people are coping, what help is available where, and what they’re going to do about the schools.

And sometimes there’s more. Sometimes a local paper shows you what it means to live in a community, one that includes everyone. That’s a great thing to have. And a sad thing to lose.

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