Sam Burnham, Curator
Today will be the last edition of the Waycross Journal-Herald. It’s a sad end for a local and independently-owned publication that has been reporting in southeast Georgia for 105 years and has been owned by the same family since 1916. I learned of this story from another local publication in southeast Georgia, The Brunswick News. I found the link to that story from yet another local news outlet, Hometown Headlines, located in Rome. That’s local press spreading news from other local presses.
It has only been a few weeks since we shared the news about the closure of The Vindicator, the longtime paper of Youngstown, Ohio. There are some parallels. Both towns have suffered economically, both papers had been owned by the same families, respectively, for decades, both were the predominant news source for their respective towns.
The shuttering of the Journal-Herald comes at a bad time for the town. A combination of stories are developing in area and now have no local outlet. With strip mining proposed near the Okefenokee, a regional economic engine could be under a serious threat. There is also the reports that the town is a “cancer cluster,” having an above average number of diagnoses of rare cancers, possibly linked to local industry.
The mining issue will still receive scrutiny. It’s a more regional threat and papers in Brunswick, St. Marys, and other towns are covering the developments. (And they’ll continue that coverage as long as they survive.) The swamp is also famous enough to get the Atlanta based outlets involved.
The cancer cluster issue is another story. There were a few mentions of it from a few outlets. But recently the discovery of the possibility that potentially harmful substances are being emitted from the Sterigenics plant in Cobb County has eliminated any and all statewide mention of the confirmed diagnoses of rare cancers in children in Waycross. My complaints to Georgia Public Broadcasting on this phenomenon were answered with one link to one segment of one show in their lineup. GPB is a reliable source for news you won’t hear from large commercial outlets and even they have only one segment they can point to. Conversely, their coverage of the Sterigenics story has been ubiquitous. Poor kids in southeast Georgia who have confirmed cancer aren’t as newsworthy as wealthy kids in Smyrna, Vinings, and Buckhead who might be potentially somewhat exposed to something that might be harmful. That’s not acceptable. Waycross deserves better. Georgia deserves better.
Local news outlets, specifically independent newspapers, are where stories get their start. These publications initially find the stories that the national outlets cover. Once these reports are made, larger outlets, and even other small presses, pick them up. If there is no local outlet to dig up the story, there’s no way that the New York Times or Washington Post will ever find them. They couldn’t find Waycross on a map of Ware County. Even ABG relies on these presses for stories that we share. We need boots on the ground, reporters who know the landscape, who have local interest, who are part of the community. As is the case with everything, over-centralized news outlets are less effective. We need voices close to home.
The only way to reverse the troubling trend of local independent news outlets going belly up, is for us to support those outlets in our communities. These are the entities that watch our local governments and businesses and keep them honest. These are the sources of all news. Think of it as the numerous and distant outstretched roots that are needed to hold up one of our majestic live oaks. If the tree of journalism is to survive, we have to be mindful to water and fertilize those outstretched roots. We have to support our local press.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire