There are a lot of great books and movies about big-city newspapers. Biographies and autobiographies abound of journalists with national reputations like USA Today founder Al Neuharth, legendary Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham and Editor Ben Bradlee, foreign affairs reporter Seymour Hersh and hundreds more famous figures throughout history. If you have seen some of these movies or read some of these books, you may think you know journalism. You also should think for a moment of some people you'd never heard of before last Thursday, the five people killed at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland.
With a print circulation, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, in the range of 20,000 daily and a bit more on Sunday, the Capital Gazette doesn't rank anywhere near the readership of a major metropolitan daily newspaper in America. But it is very much the picture of a typical daily newspaper in America.
The Pew Research Center's Newspaper Fact Sheet, says total newspaper circulation in 2017 amounted to about 31 million daily and 34 million Sunday, but of that number, looking at other sources, the top 50 newspapers in America account for far less than half that number at less than 13 million. Even more instructive, Columbia Journalism School researchers Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali used Editor & Publisher data in 2017 to show that "upwards of ninety-seven percent of (daily and weekly) newspapers in the United States can be categorized as 'small-market.' "
In their report "Local Journalism in a Digital World," Radcliffe and Ali call small newspapers "a silent majority" and insist that "when telling the story of the newspaper industry in the United States, we need to show more nuance."
Mass murder is a horrible way to elicit that nuance, and yet the Annapolis killings are a grim reminder that American journalism is a product more often of people whom readers may know as their friends and neighbors than of lofty elites filing reports on emotionally charged or historically momentous events.
Every newspaper, whatever its size, has its mission and value, of course. Yet it is worth a moment of reflection to consider the work of 6,900 small dailies and weeklies that form a network of community service across the country. To various degrees, these papers may carry reports, opinion and analyses of grand national and international events, but their fundamental devotion is to provide news from the police blotter, the village, city, school, park or zoning board, the local service organization or social club. To help the people of their communities govern themselves and protect and improve their local quality of life.
You may be inclined to see American journalism in the faces of broadcast stars on "Fox News in the Morning" or "Morning Joe" or in bylines from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. But if you really want to understand the field, you'll spend some time reflecting on the lives of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters, the five Capital Gazette employees killed Thursday.
In them, we see a devotion to neighbors, truth, ethics, community, and country that is repeated tens of thousands of times a day all across America. We mourn their loss. We celebrate their work.