In the summer of 2017, I walked into my first newsroom meeting bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It was the first week of my first-ever newsroom internship here at The State Journal.

I left confused.

Our last state government reporter announced he was putting in his two weeks to work in public relations.

What I had understood for some time in the abstract, that local news had befallen tough times, became real. 

It’s still real. Today, the number of people at those meetings has halved. The problem isn’t unique to Frankfort.

U.S. newspapers — at best uniquely situated to give readers the nuance needed to truly grasp local issues and at the very least a service that tells you what happened at the city commission meeting last night — are dwindling. Pew Research indicates that between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment has fallen by half. In the past 15 years, more than one in five newspapers have closed altogether, per the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism

All over the country, that means fewer people to tell you the uplifting, challenging and uniting stories that make a place distinct; fewer people to hold local officials accountable for their actions and inactions; fewer people to help you make sense of your community.

Our journalists are all more than capable, but there will be stories in a community of 50,000 people and more than $300 million local public budget funds that slip through the cracks. Some slippage simply won’t be fixed until the local news ecosystem finds its economic footing — be it from subscribers or advertisers, venture philanthropists or even the federal government. 

But making a better product with what we have now is possible, and it’s one way of flipping the script to ensure a better, financially stronger future for local journalism. 

So, watch this space. Because here is what's coming.

The establishment of my own position, director of investigative and depth reporting, affirms The State Journal's commitment to going deeper in our reporting. 

In the coming weeks and months, you’ll see this commitment in our reporting a couple different ways. Our weekend FOCUS pieces will be rebranded to "SJ Digs," with an emphasis on telling stories and asking questions in ways that only we as journalists can.

Readers should also look out for a series about our neighborhoods called "Where We Live," which aims to help everyone in the Frankfort area understand the character and challenges unique to specific neighborhoods in our community. 

In general, we hope to focus more on stories that make a positive impact on our community by providing an honest account of how powerful people and institutions affect the lives of Frankfort and Franklin County residents. These are the types of stories that only good journalism can bring to this community. 

This product, as ever, will not be infallible. We will make some mistakes. Even when our reporting is rock solid, some readers will inevitably take issue. That’s expected, as the purpose of journalism is more truth-seeking than people-pleasing.

When done well, these stories don’t just make for a better news product; they also provide a genuine public service. 

I may not be as naturally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I was at age 20. Still, the prospect of doing this work, all the while making Frankfort and Franklin County better serve the people who live in it, makes me even more excited now to walk into the newsroom each day. 

Austin Horn, a Woodford County native and Frankfort resident, is the director of investigative and depth reporting for The State Journal. His email address is austin.horn@state-journal.com. Please email him with any ideas or sources for an upcoming series on Frankfort’s neighborhoods or any investigative tips.

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