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Judy’s Notebook: The News in Our Backyard

What news are Americans reading?

This question has been nagging at me ever since the owners of the Washington Post, the venerated Graham family, announced this month they’re selling to the founder of Amazon. I’ve long known how lucky we are in the D.C. area are to have access to a great “local” newspaper that just happens to also have in-depth coverage of what Congress, the president and the Federal Reserve are up to, as well as solid reporting on the turmoil in Egypt and other international pressure points.

But in addition, today’s Post Metro section leads off with a piece about a program to give teenage, first-time offenders the chance to earn money at jobs like landscaping rather than go to jail. Just below it is the sweet news that three female Asian elephants will move to the National Zoo here, from the Calgary Zoo where they live now, so they can be part of a larger herd. It wasn’t until I read this story on the Metro front page that I learned one of the three, 38-year-old Kamala, paints watercolors, and that each elephant consumes about 200 pounds of hay a day.

You could argue successfully that neither Metro story has information essential to get me through the week. But I’d push back that they do tell a little more about the community I live in. So it is with newspapers around the country, holding up a mirror to the community — the good, the bad, the ugly, the heartwarming and the funny — in a way that connects us all a little more to one another. Losing hundreds of newspapers over the past decade, and thousands of reporters, means there’s not only less national and international coverage, but also less coverage of the communities we live in, of our neighbors.

As much as I love reading on my tablet computer, turning pages with the powerful swoosh of an index finger, I miss many of these human interest stories when I do. I tend to look for politics or international coverage, or reporting on an issue that’s in the news that week, and often don’t take the time to search for a page B-3 piece about the District of Columbia footing the bill for 7,300 high school students to take the SAT, ensuring that more of them have a chance to go to college.

Visiting family in Oklahoma this weekend, I did look at the Tulsa World online, and was heartened to see not just stories about crime and mayhem — a murder and kidnapping — displayed prominently, but also an update on Postal Service plans to cut back on the days of delivery, and a report about non-profits in the Tulsa area coming together to try to rejuvenate two “tough neighborhoods,” making them safer and more supportive for the children growing up there. How many Tulsans read this story that describes a partnership between non-profits like City Year and the local public school system?

Or the item about Oklahoma state health officials keeping a close eye on a measles outbreak in next-door Texas. Again, neither of these would make or break a person’s day, but they give us a better sense of the place we regularly interact with. And they are features of the 108-year-old Tulsa paper that appealed to wealthy investor Warren Buffett, whose company has bought 70 newspapers — 30 daily and 40 weeklies — in 10 states over the past couple years, explaining he likes them because they cover the place where they are. The World’s managing editor, Susan Ellerbach, explained earlier this year when the sale was announced: “They felt very good about the relationship the Tulsa World has with the community and they want to see that continue…”

So, before we rush pell-mell to grab our phones and tablets, which inevitably do what they’re advertised — make us a little smarter — let’s not forget to stop, take a breath, and look around. And to look especially at the items an industrious local reporter worked on, that add to our knowledge of the world, the nation, and our own backyard.

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