January 21, 2021

On the night of Jan. 5, Dee Dwyer’s 10-year-old daughter had a bad feeling.

“I don’t want you to go,” she told her mom, a photojournalist who works with the online news site DCist, about covering former President Donald Trump’s rally.

“I always go,” Dwyer replied.

“I have a bad feeling.”

Dwyer, who often covers Trump supporters, listened and stayed away.

The next day, Alejandro Alvarez stood just outside the door to the Capitol as people broke in. Alvarez, a journalist and photographer for the radio station WTOP, worried that things could turn deadly, and he was alone.

He stayed outside and kept reporting.

Inside, Tia Mitchell was one of 50 people locked down in the House chamber as a mob beat down the door. Mitchell, Washington correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, tweeted updates.

We just heard a loud bang. It could have been the use of tear gas. Members are praying.

And Lorenzo Hall watched it all happen as he anchored the afternoon news for D.C. TV station WUSA9.

When news becomes national, local journalists are the people who stay behind and keep working even after the headlines move on. That’s true, too, in Washington, D.C., where the insurrection and the lockdown that followed weren’t just a national story, but a local one.

“It’s one thing to observe these massive, earth-shattering events from a distance,” said Alvarez, “and another thing to live in the middle of it.”

 

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Dwyer’s had to think a lot about what she’s wearing lately. No all-black as she prefers, no red velvet hat, either. She wants to blend in, but not with any one side. And with the huge police and military presence, she’s also feeling a lot of anxiety, “especially as a Black person.”

Dwyer decided not to cover the inauguration this year. Instead, she took a freelance assignment to document several generations of her family in southeast D.C., a predominantly Black neighborhood, watching Vice President Kamala Harris’ swearing-in. 

Mitchell, with the AJC, did cover the inauguration, followed by the swearing-in of Georgia’s two Democratic senators. While national publications have teams, most regional newspapers just have one person in the capital, she said, and they’ve formed their own support team amongst each other through the Regional Reporters Association.

“We have a unique mission to cover Washington for a more localized audience,” Mitchell said, “and so we’re able to compare notes.”

Alvarez, with WTOP, spent the day in the National Mall area, covering any protests that popped up, reporting twice each hour on radio, photographing and live-tweeting.

And Hall, with WUSA9, anchored the afternoon news and looked for the stories that mattered to people who live in D.C. This is a national moment, he said, and it’s easy to rush toward national headlines. Luckily, he has readers tweeting and texting at him about what they’re seeing, and he’s listening.

Each local journalist knew the stories they’d tell next.

For AJC’s Mitchell, it’s impeachment, a national story, certainly, but a local one, too, with Georgia’s two new senators flipping the balance of power. 

Dwyer, the photojournalist with DCist, plans to keep covering D.C.’s Black community. 

“This is the time when we need each other, especially the Black community. They have a lot to say, They have a lot of anger. They have a lot of disappointment.”

Alvarez, with WTOP, will follow the local community organizers and activists who rose up in the last several years and will persist after national tensions drift away. They’ve fought for climate action, advocated for immigrants, pushed for equality. How will they shift gears under a new administration?

And how long with D.C. be filled with police and military?

“What are the threats?” WUSA9’s Hall asked. “We keep hearing about the threats, but what are they? What should we be looking for?”

He plans to keep covering calls for D.C. statehood and to tell stories that don’t make national news, like the people who have to use public transportation to get into a fortified city for work. 

“To me that should get greater play on our local news than anything else,” he said, “because these are people’s lives.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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