October 01, 2010

Obit for ordinary man shows community journalism at its best

This morning reading through my Twitter feed, I came across a link to an obituary for Neil Alan Smith, a 48-year-old St. Petersburg, Florida dishwasher. He had been killed coming home from work, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.

The St. Pete Times had an item about the death up on its web site, to which a reader posted the comment, "A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead."

Not surprisingly, the Web editor deleted the mean-spirited comment. But that wasn't the end of this story. The Times decided that it needed to run a full obit to show the commenting troll was wrong, that every life does matter. The obit by reporter Andrew Meacham gives the background on the story and then starts the feature portion of it this way:

This much is certain about Mr. Smith: A number of people miss him.

He had a small but loyal network of co-workers and friends who are planning soon to celebrate his life.

They all describe Mr. Smith as steady and dependable. He rode his bicycle nearly 4 miles each way from the Hollywood Trailer Park on Fourth Street N to the Crab Shack on Gandy Boulevard, where he had worked for the past 10 years. In a business known for turnover, that is considered a long time.

The obit goes on to give as much of the story as could be told about Mr. Smith, a story about a part of our world that rarely makes it into the newspaper. And you know what? Mr. Smith had a more compelling story than anything else I've read in a long time.

Despite coming from a major paper in a big, urban area, this is, I think, true community journalism at its best. And it's reporting we can all do no matter where it is we work.

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