The legendary New York newspaperman Pete Hamill called Ted Poston, the first Black reporter at a mainstream daily newspaper — the New York Post — a “man of grace and generosity, particularly to those of us who were young.”
Poston retained his dignity despite going “over and over again” to the American South alone, “in the years when it wasn’t easy to be black and alone in that heartbreaking region with a notebook in your hand.”
“This is the best gahdamned business in the world,” Hamill recalled Poston telling him once. “We help more gahdamned people than any gahdamned government. So don’t you ever disgrace it, you hear me?”
I thought about this passage in Hamill’s 1998 meditation on the journalism industry, “News Is A Verb,” after learning of the death, Monday, of our former colleague, Terry Dean.
I got to know Terry well while working alongside him for about a month as I transitioned into the job he was leaving. Terry couldn’t have been more gracious and patient and decent and kind. He didn’t have to be that way, but he was.
And it was partly because of Terry’s strength of character that I, like Hamill after hearing Poston’s terse demand, felt a strong sense of responsibility to the work I was inheriting.
We’re not in the 1960s and the West Side is not the American South, but being a Black journalist is still a lonely job, wherever we may be assigned.
We’re either the relatively voiceless or powerless few in mainstream newsrooms dominated by whiteness or we are newsrooms of one, struggling (financially, emotionally, physically) to cover communities we love.
Terry, it turns out, was both: a Black reporter covering Oak Park schools in Wednesday Journal’s overwhelmingly white newsroom and, as the sole editor and lead reporter for Austin Weekly News, essentially a newsroom of one.
Like all of us in local journalism, he was overworked and underpaid. And yet, as a testament to the minor miracle that was then Wednesday Journal Inc. and is now Growing Community Media, Terry was empowered to imprint his vision on the paper and to publish a product that his neighbors and loved ones in Austin respected and revered, which is not a simple feat.
In her new book, News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, Nikki Usher helped me understand why.
Usher argues that the idea of local journalism many Americans have cultivated is actually “deeply problematic and somewhat ahistoric.”
For one, the term “local” is conceptually ambiguous. It can mean a metropolitan region as populous and geographically expansive as Cook County, a city of several million, a census block or just about anywhere in the country not Washington, New York or Los Angeles.
In our current age of digital networks and globalization, local is often thought of as anywhere associated with a fixed place, more often than not a place you want to leave. Indeed, the term local can be a pejorative, used for anyone or anything that’s the opposite of cosmopolitan or worldly. To be local is to be basic, simple … stuck.
In another sense, to be local is to be rooted, stable, home — notions most appreciated in the context of growing older, having children and paying property taxes.
Secondly, the kind of accountability journalism that we often associate with local news “is largely a boutique form of journalism” practiced in the wake of Watergate by large metro papers like the Chicago Tribune, which had the resources to hire their own Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins.
“The romantic myth of the informed American citizen where every town had its own newspaper is missing an important detail: the United States was founded and existed for close to a century without a robust tradition of local news, and most of the news in these plentiful local newspapers was reprinted from other outlets,” Usher writes.
“For much of American history, local news was associated with either salacious scandal or boosterism (or both), and most newspapers were low on original news content,” she adds.
What’s more, Usher argues, most early newspapers existed not to speak truth to power; on the contrary, they were tools of the powerful.
“This booster journalism was meant to build up a ‘place,’ to make a place somewhere that people wanted to invest in and move to; critical local journalism was scant,” she writes.
“Boosterism” is a precursor “to what we now think of as local news, and local news in many places across the United States still serves as a site for community promotion rather than community critique. Frontiersmen ‘founded’ new towns and newspapers often at the same time, and many of today’s newspapers bear the mark of larger-than-life figures trying to ‘settle’ the West.
“These settlers were also participants in Native American genocide, either directly or indirectly; to have a newspaper was to civilize and to fulfill manifest destiny. Men like Col. Alden Blethen of the Seattle Times used their power at the helm of a newspaper to create their cities.”
Even now, when people in Austin complain about our coverage, the criticism is often rooted in this collective desire for booster journalism.
The sentiment is this: With all the social forces working against Austin, the last thing she needs is her own newspaper working against her and painting her in a bad light.
There’s another dynamic at work.
Local newspapers everywhere are often “part and parcel of the establishment power structure and have a vested interest in its continuation” — if only because they’re financially dependent on those who can spend money on advertising or can dole out donations. To an extent, that’s also the case in Austin.
And yet, even though the boosterism origins of local news have been obscured by this hyper-focus on accountability journalism, we local journalists still take the post-Watergate commitment to speaking truth to power seriously.
This is an extremely difficult balancing act for a metro paper, let alone one man, but such was Terry’s task as editor of Austin Weekly News and that he did it so well for so long will be his legacy.
Quality journalism, journalism that creates a sense of place, is increasingly becoming a luxury commodity available only to people who live in places wealthy enough to pay for it — places like the coasts and big cities (places that, in Usher’s parlance, are typically rich, white and blue).
“Some places simply get more compassionate, consistent, humanizing coverage, while others, home to people of color, remain ‘unknowns,’ places of statistics rather than of lives that matter,” Usher writes.
Terry Dean made Austin known in the minds of people who otherwise would not have ventured beyond Austin Boulevard often enough or long enough or seen it deeply enough to discover its texture and its richness. And he made Austinites known to each other.
And that’s a powerful thing.
It would be a tragedy, however, if we didn’t find some way to systematically and equitably cultivate more local journalists like Terry, people who are so rooted in a place that they can authoritatively communicate its culture and values to others.
Perhaps this is a topic that can be broached when the state’s newly created Local Journalism Task Force starts to convene. Perhaps local business and nonprofit leaders in the west suburbs and on the West Side can convene to figure out how to fund such an endeavor.
To do so would be a fitting tribute to someone I believe fit the description that Pete Hammil had for Ted Poston:
“He was a serious man. He wanted to help people. He felt he was doing more good than any gahdamned government.”