Dear readers: A plea and a promise

Last week, we launched a metered paywall on dailyjournal.net.

We are asking readers to pay a small fee for the latest news and sports, the same way other businesses require payment for a service.

In a newspaper’s case, it’s a community service.

The comments started pouring in immediately from folks who couldn’t believe we were asking them to pay for content.

Now, more than a week in, I feel it’s important to explain what your subscription and support means to not just us, but the community as a whole.

Like a lot of folks in Johnson County, I still remember Election Day 2018 like it was yesterday.

I was up at the crack of dawn, tired but excited to cover my first election as a reporter at the Daily Journal. For weeks, we had done the usual song and dance of interviewing and profiling every candidate who was running for office, to help our loyal readers decide who is best to represent them.

I took the first shift that morning — 6 to 10 a.m. I headed out to the polls to talk with poll workers and voters to get a sense of how the day was starting off, and to set the tone for the rest of our election coverage that day. Things were smooth sailing, until they weren’t.

I went home around noon to eat lunch and maybe take a nap before heading back in for the evening results. No sooner than I popped a frozen pizza in the oven, my editor called.

“I’m not sure what’s going on, but something is up,” I recall her saying. “The lines aren’t moving. People are leaving without voting.”

I turned off the oven, tossed the still-frozen pizza in the trash and headed back to the newsroom for what would become one of the longest and most important days of my journalism career.

The Daily Journal’s responsibility to the public took on new life that day when a major voting equipment failure left residents standing in line at vote centers for hours and in some cases, unable to vote. The public was disenfranchised, and all confidence in the voting system was lost.

We immediately began asking questions. What was the extent of the problem? How could it have been avoided? What now?

Officials indicated they planned to retain the vendor to conduct elections in 2019 and beyond. You would think elected officials would be accountable to the residents who elected them, and conducting an accessible, fair election would be a top priority.

In light of this, as county officials were shirking their responsibilities to the public, the Daily Journal was willing to “go it alone,” as my former editor would say.

We examined success stories from counties across the state, other vendors, and how a switch could be made within months, in time for the May primary. We outlined for the public and our decision makers how they could get a better system in place for voters. It was an option. We would not relent.

In the end, a state investigation discovered the election vendor put in place an illegal fix to allow voting to continue, and county officials fired the vendor and hired a new company.

Our solid reporting and clear explanations of possible solutions forged a clear path for the county to move forward and restore the public’s confidence.

Officials and readers commented that they appreciated our willingness to “poke the bear,” our attendance at every meeting where these decisions were being made and our commitment to an issue that lasted one day, but affected thousands of voters, and could have affected thousands more without appropriate action.

This is just one example — a personal example — of why local journalism matters. There are so many others.

When the Daily Journal did its opioid series, our senior reporter Ryan Trares spent hours attending recovery meetings to hear the stories of those who had been impacted by the epidemic.

He met with residents in church offices or coffee shops to hear how the drugs had taken everything away from them, and how they were clawing their way out of addiction.

On a cold January afternoon, he walked with a pastor through the cemetery across the street from his church, where he could point out people he had helped bury who had died from overdoses.

He brought the reality of the epidemic to life by spending time with his sources who trusted him with their extremely raw stories. It was powerful and resonated strongly with readers.

For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve covered every angle imaginable of the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re still at it.

Our news editor Leeann Doerflein talks weekly with Dr. David Dunkle at Johnson Memorial Health, and Betsy Swearingen at the Johnson County Health Department. Until now, we made sure every bit of that information was free because it was crucial to public health — and your health.

Just this week, our newest reporter Noah Crenshaw spent hours at a warehouse near Camp Atterbury, where volunteers are sleeping on cots and spending their days sorting donations for the 6,500 Afghan refugees at Camp Atterbury.

The incredible gentleman who’s leading that charge, Russ Hessler, sent us an email Thursday morning.

“We had a number of calls from both individuals and organizations in the community who wanted to help by donating shoes, and some of those donations are already here in our warehouse and should be on the base by later today.

People speak of the power of the pen, and clearly it’s true. Your writing and the professional way in which you crafted the story gave it additional power and effect,” Hessler wrote.

“Yesterday as I took calls, I heard from many about your story and how it moved them to action.”

Stories like these are why we do what we do.

We are watchdogs at local government and school board meetings because we know you’re busy, and because what our officials decide to do and how our tax dollars are spent are important to all of us.

We rush out to breaking news and dig into issues that have lasting impacts on our communities.

We travel near and far to bring you coverage of your favorite sports teams, from wins and losses, to the stories behind those triumphs and tribulations.

We also share stories that make you laugh, and cry, and feel good — stories you won’t see anywhere else.

For just $11 a month, I make this promise to you:

We will continue to hold our government officials accountable, keep a watchful eye on your city or town, and share in your joy and suffering for as long as you let us.

We will continue to produce award-winning journalism that is fact-based, well researched, well written and thoroughly edited for clarity.

We will continue to shine a light on Johnson County — our county — because we owe that to you.

James Vaughn is editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected]