(Photo illustration via iStock)

My first newspaper job in 1984, fresh out of college, was with the News Leader in Richwood, West Virginia. Richwood was a beautiful little town in the mountains on the outskirts of the George Washington National Forest. It began life as a lumber town around the turn of the century and as I understand it at one time had a population of upwards of 10,000. It was just over 2,000 in 2010, likely under 2,000 now.

By the time I landed there in 1984, Richwood, like many small towns in America, was already a shell of its former self. The lumber industry there had decades earlier petered out and if I recall correctly commerce had been basically stripped away except for a hardware store, an appliance store, a bowling alley, small grocery store and a Dairy Queen, which was the only fast food establishment.

While there were sincere efforts among the town’s leaders to fight the good fight and look for ways to grow, Richwood’s fortunes continued to decline.

In the late 1990s, the News Leader shut down. My last time through about five years ago, not only was there no newspaper, but gone too were the hardware store, the appliance store and the grocery store.

In the summer of 2016, it started to rain one day. Richwood was deluged by floods with much of the town — more than 200 homes and businesses — destroyed and most of the rest damaged. The high school, basically the town’s remaining beating heart, from which my wife was graduated, was not allowed to reopen after the flooding.

“Lumberjacks” (the mascot of Richwood High School), whom I had been friends with in high school and college but who had long since escaped, returned to their hometown in droves to lend their expertise to the cleanup — engineers volunteered their time to inspect and help repair bridges and roads, others brought food and water to the stranded inhabitants, most of whom were struggling to remove mud from homes.
In came the Federal Emergency Management Area, too, which provided the town with $3.1 million to repair water and sewer systems, roads, etc.

News is the result of the work of a trained and skilled reporter who is present at events, talks to participants and puts in the necessary shoe leather to tie off loose ends and confirm what they’ve been told.

This is where the trouble started.

When I was a reporter at the News Leader, I would faithfully attend every city council, committee and chamber meeting, ask questions, and write about it in the News Leader. The Nicholas Chronicle, which served my hometown of Summersville, also usually had reporters at these meetings. The little town had a lot of eyes on it then. It no longer does.

Last week I saw a news story that the West Virginia state auditor had recently completed a report that concluded: Richwood “appears to be in more need of finance recovery than before the flood,” because, as the news report stated: “The report … concludes  city leaders spent precious federal dollars to hire themselves, friends and family for flood relief jobs. Much of the money was not spent for its stated purposes. “

As a result, the mayor, the former mayor and the city recorder are charged with embezzlement. The town’s police chief is accused of mishandling his state purchasing card and was fired and the town council asked the mayor to resign. The town might have to pay back over $2 million of the money received.

All of course are innocent until proven guilty. It’s unclear whether what happened in Richwood was the result of greed and corruption, or simply a case of the town’s leaders being in way over their heads with no knowledge of managing such a vast recovery effort and no direction from state or federal agencies.

Actually, the trouble didn’t start with the FEMA money, as I alluded to previously, but more than a decade and a half earlier when the News-Leader closed. Had the News-Leader still been a viable entity, someone, working on behalf of the citizens, would have been in attendance as these decisions were being discussed and enacted, reporting all of it to the public.

We ran an Associated Press story recently in the Star about the closings of small, rural newspapers across the country. It’s a crisis for a democracy, which depends on transparency and sunlight to assure that the citizenry is informed with the factual information it needs to hold its elected officials to account. A study done a year or two ago of towns that lost their newspapers showed that residents paid the price in higher taxes and fees as no entity was present to let residents know what it’s leaders were doing, which usually involved efforts to force residents to pay more in exchange for lower levels of service. That doesn’t even count what officials may have been embezzling, like in Richwood.

People generally don’t hold the media in high regard, and often not without good reason. What plays out on cable TV and on social media is not news, but often little more than gasbag punditry and trolling, along with some additional disinformation thrown in for good measure. News is the result of the work of a trained and skilled reporter who is present at events, talks to participants and puts in the necessary shoe leather to tie off loose ends and confirm what they’ve been told.

As that disappears in many small towns, and considering the recent raging floods taking place in the Midwest, how many more Richwoods are going to happen?

Thanks so much for supporting your local newspaper.

Andy Prutsok is publisher of the Miles City Star in Montana.

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