April 1, 2021

The monument on Main Street in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, that caught my eye was not for a quarterback or soldier.

This gritty industrial community of 10,000 in Southwestern Pennsylvania named its central square after a newsman.

“Community journalist for more than six decades,” says a plaque for Walter “Buzz” Storey, introducing Storey Square.

This is who a newspaper editor could be in small-town America: a hero.

And that’s the missing piece in the conversation about rebuilding local journalism and its artisanal truth-gathering practices with the holy superpower to defang conspiracy theories, rebuild shared narratives and make democracy possible.

To trust the work of journalists they don’t know, Americans need to see journalists they do know making phone calls, knocking on doors and printing corrections when they screw up.

“It’s one thing to look at a TV and say ‘national media sucks,’ it’s another to look a journalist who you actually know in the eye and say that,” John Isner, co-host of the popular West Virginia-based Appodlachia podcast told me. Without local journalism, he added, “the connection of rural America and national-level news is forever fragmented.”

America is becoming a land of news deserts. The U.S. has lost 2,100 newspapers in the last 15 years, and many of the surviving 6,700 papers have become “ghost newspapers,” shadows of their former selves, according to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There is hope — in the form of digital startups, philanthropic aid and reinvestment in local news. ProPublica is partnering with local newsrooms around the country. Report for America has funded hundreds of new local journalism jobs. The American Journalism Project is raising $50 million to invest in newsrooms. More investment — a Marshall Plan, to invoke the legacy of Uniontown’s own Gen. George C. Marshall — is needed.

“Local journalism can’t take place without institutional support,” said Victor Pickard, author of “Democracy without Journalism?” “You have to fertilize for new shoots to arrive.”

The money going into coding new websites, apps and algorithms is welcome, but the legacy of people like Buzz Storey is a reminder that good journalism is really about people, and that journalists have often been treasured members of working-class American communities.

In Moundsville, West Virginia, where I co-directed the PBS film “Moundsville,” an attempt to create a shared narrative of a classic American town, people still talk about editor Sam Shaw, who died in 1995. He rode his bicycle around town, covering the courthouse, knocking on doors for interviews and collecting the news from conversations on the street. The eccentric bachelor was celebrated for his integrity — and beloved for his bird-watching, choir-singing and fondness for walking marathons and finishing last.

Storey was born in Uniontown in 1921. After working a paper route as a teenager, he joined the news staff of the Daily News Standard, which became the Herald-Standard. He learned his craft, overcame a stutter and learned to read newstype upside down. For the next 61 years, he wrote about council meetings, crimes and fires, mainly as city editor.

Occasionally, there was a really big story. Hometown hero Gen. Marshall, who has his own statue near Storey Square, visited in 1953. In 1962, a mine explosion killed 37 men. In 1985, Uniontown flooded on election day, forcing Storey to cover the disaster from a helicopter.

Buzz Storey had his own politics. He was an FDR Democrat, but Republicans respected him “because he was fair-minded,” said Ted Storey, one of his six children. “And he did what a lot of small-town papers used to do, which is foster civil debate.” That integrity gave Storey a respect that transcended partisan politics, and fueled support among town elders for naming the square after him when he died in 2004, said Mark O’Keefe, former executive editor of the Herald-Standard. (The paper still exists, in diminished form. The current editor declined an interview.)

Storey Square in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Photo: John W. Miller)

It might sound crazy in the age of unverified information flooding our senses and Facebook-fueled partisan bickering, but there’s a hopeful, and heroic, cohort of news pioneers now figuring out how to make local online journalism work.

These successful new digital journalists understand the human quality of journalism.

“It’s simple, people are looking for somebody who will go knock on the door of their favorite bar to find out why it closed,” said Shamus Toomey, co-founder of Block Club Chicago, a digital startup covering Chicago neighborhoods that started in 2018. “And with stories going online so quickly, you can gain instant credibility.”

Local journalism actually demands more accountability than national reporting.

“It’s a lot harder to write a story that makes the wife of your kid’s soccer coach look bad than it is to parachute in for The New York Times, write a story about dirty water and then leave,” said Ken Ward Jr., co-founder of the Mountain State Spotlight, a digital startup covering West Virginia that’s partnered with the American Journalism Project, ProPublica and Report for America. Ward believes that the solution to funding new local news outlets is tapping into local philanthropic networks. Americans will have to recognize that “a news organization is like the local health care clinic or the local library,” said Ward, who in 2018 won a MacArthur fellowship for his coverage of coal mining.

When Chris Horne founded The Devil Strip, an online newspaper which also publishes a monthly magazine edition in Akron, Ohio, in 2015, he spent months introducing himself in person to as many people in the community as possible.

“You have to be willing to be the person readers call on the phone to yell at,” he said. The Devil Strip now has a monthly audience of around 40,000 and is run by a co-op board elected by readers.

Of course, old-school pipe-smoking newspaper editors tended to be male and white. The next generation is already looking more like America.

In 2017, veteran Black journalist Wendi C. Thomas started MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, a digital-only newsroom, with the goal of covering social justice issues in Memphis. It has around 30,000 readers a month, and an annual budget around $700,000, mostly from grants. When Thomas started the site, it helped that she had been a metro columnist in Memphis for 11 years.

She’s found an appetite to understand how journalism works. “Some of our most popular Facebook posts are where I explain how we got the story,” she said.

And that, in the end, is how you rebuild trust in journalism — by doing the work.

“It may sound like an opinion to you, but if you disagree when I say wealth in Memphis has been hoarded by whites, I say let’s go check out Census Bureau data,” said Thomas. “If you’re transparent about what you’re doing, and people can see the work, you get respect.”

That kind of integrity, incarnated by somebody keeping their finger on the pulse of their community, resonates with people who remember Buzz Storey.

“One time, somebody in our neighborhood killed a lady with a car and wanted to keep it out of the paper,” Phil Storey, another son, told me. “My dad said, just because I know you doesn’t mean I can treat you any differently.”

The story ran.

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John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based writer and filmmaker. He is a columnist and contributor at America Magazine, and co-director of the PBS film "Moundsville."…
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