On a dreadful June evening, five writers at Capital Gazette were killed by a grudging shooter. A few hours after, a reporter at the newspaper, Chase Cook, posted one of 2018’s most memorable tweets:
I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.
This Tuesday, the renowned global magazine, TIME, named staff of the paper as part of its 2018 Person of the Year. The accolade was shared with a number of other journalists around the world, including slain Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi.
TIME called them ‘The Guardians’. Why? Because journalists are, in a significant sense, guardians. There is no need here to add “true” to the description of “journalists”. Anyone who reports news subjectively outside the “fairness and balance” code of the profession is either a PR merchant or a wannabe influencer.
The lines have blurred in the age of social media. Many who claim to be journalists today are really trying to be influencers. They push and nudge particular narratives to boost groups they are interested in. Fairness, objectivity and balance are out of the way, in exchange for recognition and influence. The consequences are not desirable. The results of influencer-marketing journalism are bad.
TIME’s Person of the Year catches my attention because of Capital Gazette. You see, they are not The New York Times. They are not Washington Post: these two are international papers of record. Capital Gazette is a local newspaper, as old as the American Revolution of the mid-19th century.
All over the world, newspapers still in the print business are under threat in the new media age. In America, we hear local papers like Capital Gazette without the backing of billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (he owns Washington Post) are shrinking at the quickest rate.
But these guys have managed to be in business. Before the shooting at their offices, they covered and wrote on local events: mothers watching their children at basketball games, court room cases, local county elections. There is a shock that comes with that kind of tragedy. They lost five veteran staff, long-term writers who were active members of the community.
But their mission has not derailed. They got national attention during their tragedy but their local focus has not wavered. The Capital continues to chronicle Annapolis, Maryland.
Who is chronicling my home town? If I need news on what happened in Aguleri last month, which objective source can I get information from? Has anyone been going once a week to the market to cover fluctuations in the price of fresh fish, especially as holiday season approaches?
This is an important question, really. For long, we have focused on national affairs as though it is all that matters. Whatever that does not concern Abuja or Lagos seems not to be news.
But local events matter. As the country’s population increases and as decentralization becomes more necessary, understanding them on the basis of trustworthy evidence will be inescapable for national cohesion and development.
Restructuring Needs Local Accountability
When restructuring happens (if it happens), the need for accountability will be even more than ever. Reports and stories on Abuja will still be important but there will be a greater requirement for vigilance on Governors, state legislatures and state judiciary. Community media were prominent in the First Republic; we will need them to return soon. Can you imagine having State Police without dedicated journalists living in those communities and writing regularly about them?
Local Governments, if they become a truly independent tier, will come under more scrutiny because of the increase in responsibilities and greater control over assets. These activities will not be monitored efficiently by Abuja-focused media; community media will be absolutely necessary.
The Time is Now
But why wait till the dawn of restructuring? Is accountability not a pressing need today?
The pressure on Nigeria’s shared resources from 36 states, some of whom contribute far less than others, make accountability an absolute necessity in the present time. We should still be digging more into what happens in every Nigerian community for objective understanding of the make up of Nigeria.
Going into the coming elections, we should be reading the unique perspectives of local media who live in and report from each federal constituency. They should be our source for fuller background information on potential representatives at the National Assembly.
The call here is for innovative approaches among media enthusiasts towards reporting local affairs to stir the consciousness of the residents of that locality. Knowing the variations in literacy, we must investigate how technology can help fill gaps where they exist. It is relatively easy in the United States where everyone can read English; the multilingual challenges here are significant. Funding is another challenge; those for whom the community news is being produced are mostly in dire economic conditions.
Make A Way
But the glory of human genius is to solve problems, not shy away from them. If there is a will to enlighten everyone and hold power at all levels to account – the principles of the journalism vocation – there will be a way. Perhaps this will be the test of our ability for real disruption.
An objective, independent, free press is necessary for a democracy to thrive, and decentralized and localized knowledge provides more political participation. The longevity and steadiness of community journalism elsewhere, even after tragedies like this year’s, should encourage investments in them.
Opinions: Part formed, Part undergoing reform