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Disarming bombshells

As we conclude an extra-long weekend in which political fireworks temporarily were shelved so actual fireworks could dominate the landscape, we nonetheless experienced a few bombshells. And, no, they weren’t bought at any of the fireworks stands that sprouted like mushrooms to sell mushroom-cloud pyrotechnics to “kids” long into their adulthood.

Among the bombshells, though not unexpected, was the death of longtime business rival Joel Klaassen.

Most people probably assume that the founder of Hillsboro Free Press would have been persona non grata in the offices of the Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal, and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin. Truth is, we had our disagreements, but like players on rival sports teams, we also had grudging mutual respect.

Joel actually proposed partnering with us back in 1998 when he started the Free Press. We declined, preferring not to challenge the Star-Journal, which at the time was not part of our family of papers. But we watched closely, nevertheless, as he attempted to follow a battle plan, developed in Ellsworth, to start a paper from scratch.

The plan, which called for the paper eventually to switch to paid circulation, never got that far. We were concerned at times by actions taken along the way, including shying away from controversy and creating a pseudo-paper that postal authorities eventually cracked down on.

But we appreciated the homage he offered to the Record’s longtime “Mostly Malarkey” column by calling his column “Partly Nonesense.” Most of all, we admired the spirit he demonstrated by devoting so much time and energy into creating a newspaper not because it could become a publishing empire but because he thought it would better serve his hometown.

Nationwide, that’s how newspapers started and how they are best run today — by local people concerned that fellow residents have reliable sources of information.

Newspapers fail not because of the Internet or social media or generational differences or declining retail. They fail when their owners, editors, and publishers no longer are part of the communities they serve and treat their papers as if they were chain stores instead of local institutions.

Joel knew this and took justifiable pride in trying to serve a small town rather than adopt strategies and ambitions of a big city.

It’s not impossible for big-city types to learn the ways of small towns, but it takes time.

Another bombshell this week was discontinuation of weekly reports of Marion police activity — something this newspaper has published, with the cooperation of generations of local police officers, for more than 60 years.

In big-city thinking, whether police are alerted to a skunk at a ballpark — as Hillsboro police were this past week — isn’t important. But to we small-town dwellers, revealing what police do on a daily basis is important. And it rarely if ever invades personal privacy — except, perhaps, that of skunks — particularly when names and specific addresses are avoided.

Sharing information about routine activities helps citizens become more involved and recognize how responsive their government can be. A growing trend toward secrecy by some police officials and many elected officials leaves citizens constantly questioning whether their government is in touch with their needs and desires.

It’s particularly important that government officials admit, without disclosing confidential information, whenever they investigate reports of wrongdoing by their employees. If investigations are so shrouded in secrecy that the only description of an investigation is that it’s “a personnel matter,” the public is left in the dark, where suspicions of cover-up grow unchecked.

Likewise, police telling the public when they investigate various situations when no one is arrested or charged is one of the ways the public can evaluate whether those who actually are charged are being treated even-handedly or being singled out for harassment.

These days, with overall trust in government and police at all-time lows, the small-town solution of more information rather than less seems a plan that every community, of every size, should try.

Sharing information occasionally may lead to fireworks. But overall, sharing also is the best way to prevent democracy from fizzling.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 5, 2023

 

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