Community journalists fade away into the night

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, July 13, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Say a prayer for our communities, if you are of a mind to, because local news journalists Ritchie Starnes and Leah Justice have left the playing field. They gave us glimpses of ourselves in ways that we might not see again.

Starnes passed away just a few days ago; Justice only a few months earlier this year. Starnes was the editor of The Daily Courier in Forest City covering all of Rutherford County. Justice was a lead reporter for the Tryon Daily Bulletin for 20 years.

Both were storytellers of the best kind because they were good listeners, but they left us much too early.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Starnes was a veteran with years of experience in other parts of North Carolina before he arrived in our area. He had a bright mind and a rock solid commitment to local news reporting. He ascribed to the time-honored tenet of journalism–comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

He didn’t much care for government officials and politicians who tried to hide their shoddy performances or cover up their shenanigans. He cared more about the people who suffered from their failings. The people who didn’t have a voice, who couldn’t get the ear of government officials, who were struggling day by day in order not to fall under the weight of injustice or life’s miserable blows.

When women called to ask for his help in exposing a prominent local judge who had been using his powerful position to take advantage of them, Starnes listened and followed up, applying skills he developed as a private detective. The judge was sent packing, although many feel he was never really punished by the local judicial system of which he was a part.

When local people called Leah Justice seeking a newspaper story about their upcoming event, she knew just how to write the story in a way that made them want to go. And when she went out to cover a breaking news story, readers knew that if she wrote it, it happened just the way she said it did.

Both were good stewards of their newspapers and their communities. They sought neither fame nor fortune, which is a good thing because small-town newspapers rarely provide either.

They sought to be an integral part of the communities they served, knowing full well that they could expect to be seen, recognized and sought out, perhaps with an unkind word, if they went to the grocery store to buy food or sat down in a restaurant for dinner.

Letting a reader give them a piece of their mind just came with the territory because not everyone is always happy with what they read in the newspaper.

We need community newspapers, and they need us. They are democracy’s glue, and they are hanging on by a thread these days. They begin each day with the credo “do no harm.” But occasionally harm is done to the community, or it is threatened, and a good community newspaper should inform everyone about that. Therein lies the rub.

More than one county official believes that the public doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about what they are up to. Rather than believing in accountability and transparency, they want the shades pulled down tight to block the light.

Good community journalists shine a light in dark corners, uncover that which others would hide, stand up to bullies and sit down with the needy and act as a government watchdog, but they also sing out loud and clear the news that is good, and most of it is.

I never had the opportunity to spend time with Leah Justice. That is my loss.

But on quite a few occasions Ritchie Starnes and I sat down for tacos or burgers or just a simple cup of coffee or two to chew the fat.

Pat Jobe, a local author and minister, said Starnes “wrote well, took good pictures and cared passionately about people doing the right thing, as is true of all good newspaper editors. He will be sorely missed.”

You might never have seen or met these two community journalists, but know this: where you live is a better place because of them.

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at