In the news business, big surprises are few.
At first blush, that may sound strange because isn’t novelty intrinsic to the word, “news?”
But, during my long career as a journalist, I’ve found that most “news” isn’t really all that new to those of us on the beat. Issues and events fall into patterns. So, if you’re a reporter covering a story over time, you often find that you can predict what’s going to happen before it occurs.
Most people say what you expect them to say. Most votes go as you think they will.
Then comes 2020, the year that broke all the rules.
Going into it, I expected the presidential election to be the big, dominant story. That’s hardly an act of great insight, right? Likely, most people thought exactly the same thing.
However, a pandemic, a crashing economy and a few enormous protests later, I have to admit that my prediction skills are lacking, at best.
Honestly, I’m still trying to get my brain around all that has happened in the first half of this year. What does it mean for the country? And, most importantly, what does it mean for the city I live in and report on every day?
As I sit here in June, writing this column, I would say that the earth beneath us is still shifting quickly, but I see a few patterns emerging.
First, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the creativity and resilience of our small business community. Harrisburg’s small business owners are a dedicated bunch, and I’m in awe of their focus and imagination as they had to cast aside their old business plans and pull new ones together on the fly. The future is still uncertain, especially as assistance like the Paycheck Protection Program expires. However, I’m increasingly confident that these owners are survivors who can overcome almost anything thrown at them.
Secondly, I’m going to do a slight turnabout and applaud the thousands of protestors who have descended on the state capital over the past few months. If you follow my scribbling, you may know that I expressed concern about these protests impacting our city neighborhoods, as they have several times. But, as I look around today, I see a neighborhood that’s no worse for the wear. We’re all still here, there hasn’t been any looting, and property damage has been quite minor. Yes, there have been some tense times, but nearly all of the demonstrations have been peaceful, the protesters passionately dedicated to their causes. This says a lot considering that the protests have been some of the largest and most persistent in the history of this city. It also says a great deal about the problems in our society and the urgent need to solve them.
Thirdly, the city government deserves recognition. The city, along with the nonprofit Impact Harrisburg, found creative ways to dole out more than $2 million to help the city’s struggling small businesses survive the devastating economic crisis. A few weeks later, the city and the Downtown Improvement District did something that, absent COVID, would have seemed downright radical. They closed downtown streets for outside dining, an experiment that proved to be a tremendous success. City officials also acted quickly to address issues of police conduct and procedures following the Black Lives Matters protests. It remains to be seen which reforms will ultimately pass into law. Certainly, this issue will persist in the corridors (and Zoom meetings) of city hall well into the second half of the year.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge the impact of the Black Lives Matters protestors themselves. As the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2020, I certainly didn’t imagine that, a few months later, we in the media, in business, in government, etc., would be analyzing and searching for ways to improve racial equality and justice in this society. George Floyd’s death and the resulting worldwide protests have brought a singular focus to the perniciousness and persistence of racism across time and generations, and a reckoning is long overdue.
As I look back on the first half of 2020, I see a society and a city trying to regain its footing. However, with a presidential election quickly approaching, I expect that the year may grow more chaotic yet. Is that possible? At this point, I’ve learned not to underestimate the year 2020.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.