Saving a Sunday with essential news, even when the paper is late

Posted by Kevin Woster on
A landing spot on the sidewalk, waiting for the morning paper

It didn’t quite ruin my Sunday when I walked out on the front step and couldn’t find the paper.

I still had the Mass, CBS Sunday Morning on TV, Krista Tippett on public radio and access to the daily news on the internet. I still had a fresh pot of tea, a nice kale scramble and 70 still-unread pages of The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, which is compelling, unnerving journalism of a different kind. (You should read it)

But something was missing — something essential — when I couldn’t find my paper. I paused, scoped the front-yard environs quickly, hopefully. Then, as hope began to wane, I wandered around the yard, increasingly bereft of anticipation, from the curb to the sidewalk to the barberry bush to the cherry tree, just in case there was an errant pre-dawn toss.

It wasn’t in any of those spots. And soon I saw my neighbor, Rod, just back from his morning run, walking out to his Rapid City Journal box out along the street, then walking back to the house with empty hands.

“No paper over there, either?” I called.

“No. Now what’s going on, Kevin?” Rod said. “Who do I call about this?”

Well, there is a number. But mostly Rod was teasing me, holding me — as a former Rapid City Journal staffer who still writes regular freelance columns and occasional news stories for the paper — responsible for the failure of a system of delivery that is difficult to manage and impossible to keep perfect.

Which was not really such a big deal for Rod.

“I’ve already read it on my phone,” he said. “I was getting it for my wife.”

Karen is like me. She can use the internet, and does. But when it comes to the morning news, she likes to hold it in her hands. Not being able to do that makes the morning a little bit less than it might have been.

OK, a lot less, in my case, at least.

I try to be understanding. I know that the delivery process for a morning daily is full of challenges and imperfections and an overriding potential for failure. That’s’ especially true now that committed crews of adolescents and their supportive siblings and parents are no longer so inclined to rise early and handle the deliveries, year after year in the same familiar neighborhood.

Even so, the system works surprisingly well most of the time, bringing me what I want early each day.

And what I want, what I need, is a newspaper. 

I know, it’s not the paper it was. It’s smaller. The staff is smaller. Most daily papers are. And here and elsewhere there’s a clear struggle to cover the hard news and features and sports that need and deserve to be covered.

But it’s still a bundle of new things and clearer things and more detailed things and notion-challenging things that arrives with mostly predictable regularity every morning — out front, somewhere.

A couple of days back, I thought I missed a paper, too.  I went through the same process of search and disappointment. I was starting to encourage myself to go online — which I do with other newspapers that I can't get in print versions — when I noticed a little oblong spot of yellow on the corner of the step near the mailbox. It was the Journal, nicely folded and protected by a plastic bag and rubber band from the slight morning mist!

It was in an unusual spot. And I’d overlooked it while scanning the normal landing zones. My morning was back on track!

And soon I was sitting in the den with a cup of tea on the computer stand and the world in my hands. The world begins, with a local newspaper, with local stories. And the big news for Journal readers that morning was that the new B-21 bombers will be coming to Ellsworth Air Force base.

Of course, the print product of the newspaper got beat by online and broadcast stories of that news the day before. So the Journal newspaper staff did what paper staffs have always done in such cases: They brought us more than we got through those other outlets, with the details of the breaking news the day before, reactions from local community leaders and an editorial with important perspective and history on work to preserve and expand Ellsworth.

From there I went to a story on the Boy Scouts from a Navy Seal who was a scout as a boy; I quick scanned Two Cents, the mostly useless blather of people who don’t have the courage to put their names on their opinions; and then I went back to real newspaper stuff, including a story on IHS and Oglala Lakota Tribe officials working to prevent abuse by IHS medical providers.

Sports had some track coverage, some all-state basketball coverage, a look at high school tennis and a story Game, Fish & Parks and it work on a chronic-wasting-disease management plan.

My old pal Jim Holland gave us a look at mayoral races in the Northern Hills while Mike Besso previewed a folk-style wresting tournament this weekend in Spearfish. 

There was the usual essential assortment of obituaries and letters to the editor (where those who comment still have to use their names) and different-voice columns from different people and places, and a mix of national and international news.

Which is to say, another day and another daily newspaper. Smaller, yes, in pages and staff. But still essential to the start of any day.

It’s a diminished news product but far from a dead one. Ask Dave Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. He says there’s a fair bit of optimism and energy, along with the challenges, at most South Dakota newspapers.

“Across the state, I still think there’s a lot of good, positive vibes and energy and good things happening in the newspaper industry in South Dakota, despite what people read or think on a national scale about journalism,” Bordwyk said.

Oh that. The national journalism thing. It’s part of the confusion overall about what journalism is and what it does, and is supposed to do.

What people think on a national scale about journalism isn’t so good. And these days the business is taking a public beating by President Donald Trump and his supporters for alleged anti-Trump biases and tactics. It has been taking a beating for a couple of years.

Lately, the coverage of the Robert Mueller probe into possible links between Trump and his campaign and Russians aiming to interfere with the 2016 election is a target of Trump and other news-media bashers. Now that Mueller has closed the investigation with a conclusion that the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” President Trump is on the “I’ve-been-exonerated” love train with his adoring posse.

Mueller didn’t reach a conclusion on whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice. And I’m guessing there’s some details to come as the bulk of the report is release that Trump won’t like.

But for Trump supporters, the results were an affirmation of the president and a condemnation of Democrats and their allegations and news reporters who covered the story.

To which Bordewyk says: “I think in the last few months we’ve had some of the best journalism I’ve seen. There isn’t anything to apologize for. In fact, they need to stay on it and we need to see the full report and see what comes of that.”

I agree with Bordewyk. There has been some exceptional reporting at the national level on the Mueller investigation. It highlighted Mueller's work to clarify the extent of Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election and also offshoots of the investigation that resulted in a string of charges, guilty pleas and verdicts against Trump associates.

Some of which involved their communications with Russians and related lies.

There was a lot that made it look like Trump had done things he shouldn’t have related to Russia. It included his own statements and a 2016 meeting get “dirt” on Clinton between Trump’s own son and a woman linked to the Kremlin.

Good reporters follow leads, in some ways much as criminal investigators do. And Trump and his people left a lot of good leads.  They just didn’t turn out to be what they might have been in terms of collusion. 

But that doesn't mean the leads shouldn't have been followed, regardless of how they turned out. Along the way, I think some media people — more often commentators than reporters — got ahead of themselves and made allegations and reached conclusions that they couldn’t substantiate. That happens, especially in a media world where a celebrity is often confused with a journalist. Most journalists, though, just did their jobs, and did them pretty well.

That was particularly true with some of the larger newspapers, although some broadcast reporters deserve plenty of credit, too.

“It’s shoe leather reporting and talking to people and sticking to a story, despite the challenges and the intimidation and even the threats,” Bordewyk says. “It’s standing up to that and pursuing it and being professional about what you do. And at the end of the day, I still think that wins out.”

In South Dakota there were some stories tied to Russia with local roots. The main one centered on Paul Erickson, a South Dakota native and political operative with his own Russian ties — in particular his partnership and private relationship with alleged Russian spy Maria Bultina.

We’ve had some excellent local coverage on that part of the Russia story, by the Journal’s Seth Tupper in particular.

So, yeah, there were some things to raise some eyebrows and get reporters interested.

But critics of the news media often forget that those high-profile, highly political stories that get splashed and overplayed all over cable news and, typically in a more responsible way, network news, are a small part of what journalists do. Especially newspaper journalists, all across the country.

And the vast majority of it has nothing to do with Russia or Trump.

“For example, a reporter from Mitchell — Ellen Bardash — took a lead and turned it into an enterprise story looking at the balances of school districts for unpaid lunch accounts, and turned it into a database story,” Bordewyk said. “All the hurdles the reporter had to go over to get that information is one thing. But the reporting itself was a great example of good, solid journalism that serves the local community as well as the state.”

Indeed. And it isn’t just the South Dakota dailies. The weeklies stay busy, too, often covering important local news that few others will cover. In an economic sense, the weeklies tend to be more insulated from the financial pressures that punish daily papers these days.

“There’s no doubt when you look at some of our dailies — Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, Watertown — that their corporate parents have their challenges on a national scale, and therefore the local paper suffers from that,” Bordewyk said. “And that’s unfortunate, because I think on their own those papers would do quite well.”

Among many weeklies, news coverage has improved over the years and the financial pictures has been better than with dailies, especially lately.

“The folks in the smaller papers, quite honestly, are doing better than a year or two ago, for a variety of reasons, maybe because their local economies have been up a bit,” Bordewyk said. 

Like their larger counterparts, weeklies still struggle to hire and retain staff. So there are job openings out there, for those who want to spend a few years, or a career, following leads and making calls and finding things to write about. Essential things.

They are things that matter to me and show up — most days — in that highly anticipated package of news out on the front step or sidewalk.

My Sunday paper finally arrived, by the way. It was couple of hours late, but still essential to my day.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.