My time at the paper nears its end. I am accepted to graduate school in the United States. I write my last piece as a paid reporter: a love letter of sorts, to the town and the job. I confess that I, like so many young people, persistently long to leave the small place where I was born and raised. I admit that we imagine the small town as a holding pen where we mill about, pawing at the gates, waiting to be let out. Only then could we begin our real lives. Finally, time would speed up and things would actually happen to us. I add that a large part of me felt that working at the paper would be what parents call “a learning experience,” or “character building,” like eating spinach or flossing. But I was wrong, and I say so. Because I now know what it’s like to really know where you’re from – to walk into any shop or turn down any street and be called by name, and be asked how things are.
Autumn has arrived in South Bend, Indiana. It is municipal election day back in Ontario, and in my town there is a landslide. I am in class when the polls close, breaking a personal rule to compulsively refresh the results on my phone, which I hide behind a book. The results come in. Not a single incumbent is returned to office. I’m told this is the first time in the town’s history that the entire council is defeated.
When the paper interviewed candidates to replace me, there were a number of applicants, many of them qualified but none of them particularly young. Why? Countless small-town students with liberal arts degrees tread off to law or graduate school every year, and journalism graduates grapple for the same vanishing entry positions at the big shops. But there is a hunger for high-quality community journalism. If the work is good, people will wait by the newsstands for the delivery each week, as they did, and still do, for our paper. If it’s true that all politics is local, then so too is journalism. Every story is local to somewhere. For many people, the mundane matters most: garbage, streets, by-laws. But even more important is trust. Local government offers a real opportunity for people to have faith in their democracy, since they can more easily feel as though their representative are beholden only to them and not to a party leader, a universal desire in politics. Citizens can look legislators in the eye after each meeting, or in the Tim Hortons, or at the Legion. It is the same thing with the media.
At graduate school, we talk ceaselessly about the steep decline in liberal democracy around the world, the seemingly irreversible distrust in the media, the hopelessness people feel about the future. I am not sure exactly what to think about these broader issues on the national level – whether the solution is a more active press or a less inflammatory one. An active one seems to have worked in my town, though I don’t know if such a thing could be calibrated in such a capacious place.
I do know that for a year in a small town in Ontario, I was the media. I cared about local democracy. I worked tirelessly to strengthen it. I was pleased with the results. The forecast for democracy may still be bleak, but, having stood in the rain for a year, I can say that getting wet was worth it.