Public Engagement — Cate Hewitt Reflects on her Work in 2020

People often ask what I like best about my job as a reporter and writer. A few years ago I would have said the opportunity to bring attention and transparency to important issues, interview interesting people and learn about a wide range of topics. In a sense, nothing has changed because all of these remain high on my list of job perks. 

But I’ve got a new one to add: increasing public engagement. Since joining CT Examiner in May, I’ve noticed the positive effect journalism has — or can have — as a catalyst for increasing citizens’ involvement in their communities. With more news coverage of their towns, citizens can become informed about issues that affect their taxes, zoning, schools and town government. I’ve witnessed how awareness frequently spurs action. Equipped with information, townspeople show up and make their voices heard at municipal meetings. They write letters. They engage with one another and with leaders who can create change. They vote in local elections. 

From the beginning, our Editor in Chief Gregory Stroud directed me and my fellow reporters, Julia Werth and Christopher McDermott, to think in terms of big topics that affect towns in southeastern Connecticut, rather than coverage of specific events. CT Examiner’s tagline, “asking big questions in small places,” opens the opportunity to put local coverage into a larger context of the region, the state and beyond. It’s no longer simply about what happened, it’s about what questions that decision, conflict or event raises. 

The topics that fascinate and energize me include zoning, wind power, wastewater management (yes, sewers), agriculture, and art and music. Sometimes writing about these topics requires covering a specific town meeting, where a decision or discussion contributes to a larger theme. Sometimes we do broader research instead and check in with local leaders about how an issue will play out locally. 

As far as public engagement, one of my new practices is to write about an event before it happens so that the people can choose to be there if they so desire. That especially applies to stories about the arts where I write previews rather than reviews to potentially increase public attendance. But that will also count for town meetings with broader agenda items that will affect local citizens. 

The articles we write don’t stop on the page as if frozen in time, but serve a larger role in the communities we cover, promoting discussion, engagement and ultimately empowering citizens to be a part of the bigger picture of their town, region and state. I like asking questions and finding answers that lead to more questions. In 2020, I will write about more questions — the deeper and broader the better — and search for answers that empower citizens with information and spur them to take action.

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