Column: When local news becomes all-consuming

Credit: Flickr
Credit: Flickr

Last week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels instantly became the lead story in newsrooms around the globe. The bombings — the deadliest in Belgium’s history — rightfully dominated the headlines and continue to do so at major news organizations like The New York Times. At one point, that paper’s online version featured a headline that spanned the width of its home page. It was the kind of eye-popping text reserved for only the biggest news stories.

The attacks’ timing — on a Tuesday — put me in an unusual position. In the tragedy’s immediate aftermath, when most people were desperate for information, I read virtually nothing about the attack.

That might sound odd for someone who earns a living in ink, but it wasn’t out of apathy or because I’ve grown immune to stories about ISIS, whose threat is more apparent than ever. I simply didn’t have time.

As a local newspaper editor who was on deadline and trying to prepare stories for that week’s edition — with a short staff — I found myself cocooned in our North Fork bubble. A tragedy of our own had unfolded the same day: Cutchogue firefighter Frank McBride’s pickup truck was struck by a Long Island Rail Road train in Mattituck. The crash — and Mr. McBride’s subsequent death from his injuries — sent our newsroom scrambling to report the story accurately and responsibly while also wrapping up other news for the weekly papers. We quickly learned what kind of impact the 34-year-old had on the community. It was an emotional and important story for our readers.

By the middle of the next day, Wednesday, as we were putting the finishing touches on the papers, it finally hit me: I had no idea what was going on in Brussels. I pointed this out to a fellow editor, who felt the same way.

It’s a peculiar side effect of working in community news. There are times when huge stories that change the world around us unfold, but our focus must remain on the task at hand. And that task is delivering local news to local readers. It’s what allows us to remain successful at a time when it’s becoming harder and harder for newspapers to stay viable in the modern world.

The weekly grind of reporting on matters large and small in Riverhead and Southold towns can sometimes appear mundane. But in reality, there’s never a shortage of interesting, compelling topics and characters for us to write about. Occasionally, those stories cross over into the kind of mainstream news that bigger media outlets are busy reporting. For example, our recent coverage of the heroin epidemic is something you might also see featured on “60 Minutes.”

This week, reporter Paul Squire covered a heroin awareness program at Mattituck High School called “The Ugly Truth.” More than 100 parents, teenagers and other community members attended the two-hour presentation by law enforcement and medical professionals, who described the dangers posed by heroin and other opioid drugs.

As anyone who has been affected by drug addiction knows, this isn’t a story taking place in a far-off land. It’s happening here, whether we choose to believe it or not.

Of course, a good part of my time as an editor is spent reading quirky items that would never see the light of day at a paper like Newsday. For instance, last week’s Southold Town police report included an item about a Riverhead man who was operating a leaf blower at a home in Mattituck. A neighbor, apparently upset by the noise, came over and turned off the machine.

Yes, a lot of people in this rural environment don’t take too kindly to noisy leaf blowers. That’s not the first item of its type we’ve found in local police reports and I’ll bet it won’t be the last.

When there’s chaos all around us, sometimes being immersed in our small-town concerns is a welcome reprieve.

WerkmeisterThe author is the managing editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].