Don’t cry fake news at the local level

One of my reporters recently returned from a local government meeting, and while summing it up he mentioned that a speaker had implored the government body “all news is fake. You know that, right?” 
My mouth dropped.
I’ve personally attended the meetings of this very governmental body. The front row is usually occupied by no less than three identifiable journalists — it used to be four until a more than 100-year-old newspaper in our county shut its doors due to changing economics in 2019. I wondered how anyone could say such a thing without making an exception for print journalism and community newspapers.
Stories about the Lutheran women who sewed more than 100 quilts for Lutheran World Relief aren’t fake news. 
A story about a house exploding and injuring one and killing another occupant isn’t fake news. 
Stories about local government aren’t fake news. 
Setting aside the Lutheran women and the exploding house for a moment, community newspapers present very little as fact that isn’t easily verifiable.
This meeting covered by my reporter, for example, is recorded on digital audio that must be saved and made publicly available for a lengthy period of time, and is witnessed by a sizable group of clerks and county staff. Additionally, in the midst of this pandemic, the meeting is recorded and broadcast over the teleconferencing platform Zoom. Some government bodies even broadcast their meetings on social media. 
If anyone claims they were misquoted by word, that can be verified or proven false to a certainty. 
What we print is factual. Local news in print newspapers, be they daily or weekly, is not fake. It is the very real recording of the history and stories of our local communities that will live in perpetuity. 
Sure, there is a plethora of search engine ads, click bait and social media flotsam that scream “Local man eaten by crocodile.” But common sense should tell a reasonable person that some of what they see is solely for profit and not actual news. There are many clues and dead giveaways. 
Obviously partisan network news, tabloid television, talk radio and other mediums notwithstanding, no one can make a serious case that the shining examples of community journalism you hold in your hands each week or every day are fiction. And readers should be smart enough to know that the “opinion” page is dominated by just that — opinions and not facts. 
The inability of some to discern truth from falsehoods and facts from opinions is a problem that must be corrected to ensure the stability of local and regional print media in Texas and in America. 
As we lobby our legislators this spring, or turn our eyes to the State Board of Education and to our own community schools, let’s encourage making certain the curriculum teaches the tried and true bedrocks of learning fact vs. opinion and truth versus falsehood.
And, as an industry, let’s partner with our community schools to make sure this happens.
If your newspaper participates in Newspapers in Education, partner with curriculum directors and educators to include content in your pages that teaches young people how to discern truth vs. falsehood and fact versus opinion.
If your newspaper is financially or otherwise unable to participate in NIE, make your journalists available to local schools as resources not just in journalism classes, but in other classes that may address deciphering fact versus opinion — or in any other ways that are a natural fit.
Partnering with our local schools is one way to create a new generation of newspaper readers who understand they can get their local news from community newspapers.
To remain relevant, it is imperative we remind people of why we are relevant. It’s also essential to participate in the cultivation of the next generation of readers. We must help them understand not just why we are important, but that what we do is reliable — and decidedly not fake.