A lady called the paper where I was working when I wrote my first local newspaper column in May of 1969.
"Who is this guy Minnich and why should he get to write a column in our local paper?" she demanded to know. Mike Elseroad, the circulation manager who took the call, was at a loss for words. He finally explained that Minnich grew up in Manchester and worked here for a couple of years before serving in the Navy, and now he was back and - "Well, OK, then. If he's local, like you say," said the woman, and she hung up.
The lesson there is that it isn't the name, or even the writer's abilities, that matter.
The key word is local. Not local as in only about the street outside, but about topics that local people can relate to, or be willing to argue about, challenge and defend.
I still have a book on the shelf written by Jim Bishop, reporter. He's the guy who wrote a few books, big books that won prizes, like "The Day Christ Died," and "The Day Lincoln Was Shot." He began as a reporter, and never called himself anything else, even though he became internationally known as a columnist for King Features Syndicate. His base was New York, which would seem to be as far from local as Carroll County is from Afghanistan. But he wrote local columns in the purest sense, because he wrote about the human condition, laughter and tears, triumphs and disastrous failures.
Local can be the heart, shared. It can be an idea, an intellectual premise or a memory. It can be a hope - just about anything that is universally human. That lady who called asking who the columnist was wanted to be assured that the writer knew where she lives, and what she values. Things have not changed; we apply tribal standards to those who would speak for or about us. There are limits to the credibility we will extend to those who presume to report facts or opinions.
When I first started covering news in Carroll County, we had fewer than 40,000 citizens. What I learned in short order was that growing up in Manchester did not ensure that I knew all about Westminster, or Taneytown or Detour. I'm not sure I knew there was a village called Detour until I wrote about the creek flooding homes.
I had a lot to learn, and that challenge eventually became my greatest reward; this news business is truly a continuing education, an on the job laboratory in politics, economics, sociology, psychology, the humanities.
Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil once said, "All politics is local." He got it. Politics is about people, whether they live on the farm or in the city. Businesses are run by people (I don't care what the Supreme Court says, businesses are not people; people are businesses).
Lions and Kiwanis and Rotary news is about the work of the people who are members, and the people they serve in the community. The shopkeeper, waitress, dentist who begins and ends five or six days a week in the same job has something to say. From them we can discover something about loyalty, or stamina or overcoming disabilities and disadvantages. We learn about where we live by knowing our fellow travelers.
Journalism fails when it forgets that the most important of the five W's is Why. Stories should explain Who, What, Where, When and Why, and sometimes, How, but the key is Why. Who is celebrity news, What is self-explanatory. When should be timely and Where is preferably someplace we recognize, but Why opens all kinds of new things to think about. That's the one that explores who we are and what we believe, or think we know.
Columns are tools to help us explore the Why of things, and grow. So I'm back at it.