Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How small-town journalism changed my life

(The following was published a couple months ago by Publisher's Auxiliary--the publication for the National Newspaper Association.)

The Wonder of Weeklies
How small-town journalism changed my life

I catapulted into the quiet community of Tremonton, Utah as managing editor of their weekly newspaper like a missile into a glass of milk. This was my second job out of journalism school and not what I was planning on doing for a career. I was itching with ambition for New York when life threw me a curveball—love. I married a Northern Utah boy and didn’t have a wide variety of newspapers to choose from. Actually, there was no variety. It was either the Tremonton Leader or flipping burgers.

I entered my new position loaded with skepticism. But despite my initial reservations, my experience with small-town journalism transformed my life and love for writing.

I instantly recognized the opportunities a small paper provided. I wasn’t just writing most of the article inches, I got to delve into editorial writing and have my own column. I was editor-in-chief, receptionist, head photographer and layout designer. I didn’t merely have my fingers on the pulse of the community—I was often given the opportunity to be the heart that pumped it, creating events and seeing them through, opening a forum for serious community discourse alongside the rodeo queen announcements and first birthday photos.

But the real treat of small town journalism ended up being the difference I could make within its distinctive sphere.

Every small-town newspaper has the burden to practice serious journalism with its limited resources. This is something I didn’t expect coming from a much bigger publication. I thought weeklies were all about Prom queen photos and 50th anniversary announcements. But Tremonton was far away from the coverage of any big daily. I quickly discovered if I didn’t write about an issue, no one would.

Sometimes the stories that surfaced scared me. They were beyond my interest and experience. But I wrote about them anyway, and my confidence grew with each article. From murders to drug busts to elections, I filled the newspaper with important issues. This wasn’t always appreciated by everyone in the community. Sure, I received calls and letters from adoring fans, but I had twice as big of a response from the mud-slinging anonymous crowd. My skin thickened quickly.

I even have a twenty-page memo from the county attorney’s office that rips apart my writing skills and personal character. They sent it to my boss after I got the county attorney in a heap of trouble with the Utah Press Association for violating the Freedom of Information Act. (She was used to putting gag orders on public officials without authority. I revealed this illegal practice in print.) The memo was so scalding it almost melted our fax machine when we received it. But it’s one of my most prized possessions. I keep it in my portfolio alongside my awards as proof I’ve arrived as a journalist. I took on the big, scary stories and conquered them despite criticism. I let go of my pride and discovered a greater community good. This wasn’t just writing to make a name for myself or receive a pay check. This was real writing and had nothing to do with my resume.

After a year at the Leader my idea of what a successful career in journalism entailed completely shifted. I cared more about a publication’s ability to do good than its circulation numbers.

Our little paper took third for best quality in a national contest for weeklies. But what really made me value my time at the Tremonton Leader were things seemingly smaller. A call from the community re-hab clinic saying they had a record number of meth addicts check themselves in after reading my articles on the subject. The money raised in conjunction with an article that purchased a remote town a working ambulance—saving lives. A thank you from a family who treasured a feature I did on their son’s service in Iraq after he was killed in a roadside bombing.

I was addicted to my job and never planned on leaving. Then life threw me another curveball—a child. My son was born at three pounds, barely alive. I had to make the difficult decision to leave my full-time job in order to provide the extensive medical care he would need.

It’s now been two years since I left the Leader. The things I learned in my time at a small paper have provided success in surprising ways. My writing skills were sharpened as well as my sense for a good story. Now I'm writing novels. Maybe someday I’ll get to go back to my old job. Maybe not. But one thing is certain, I’m a different person—and, I dare say, a better person—because of it. That’s the wonder of weeklies.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Mom’s Big Pay Day

I saw the contest on the baby food aisle, advertised in neon pink and gecko green. MOM’S BIG PAY DAY! I stopped my cart and eagerly read on. Apparently if mothers were to get paid for the amount of stressful work they did, I read, they’d be earning triple digit figures. And Similac had decided one such hard-working woman would receive her just dues.

I looked down at my fistful of coupons and stained T-shirt from the local thrift store’s summer blowout. Yeah, I could definitely use some triple digit action in my bank account. And even better, this was a writing contest! Write the job description of a mother--100 words or less, the sign said.

Why I’ve written for money a million times, I mumbled to myself. I have a flipping degree in writing. This is MY contest!

I excitedly drove home, made dinner for my toddler, nursed my baby, wiped my toddler’s dinner off the wall, changed the baby, changed and bathed my toddler, read to him, changed him again, put him to bed, then finally sat down in front of the computer and started typing.

Every night I worked on my entry until it was perfect. After two weeks, I knew I had it. In one hundred ninety-nine words, I’d captured the pain and joy of my experience mothering. Reading my essay would make anyone cry. And to boot, it used metaphor, sensory imagery, and word-play. It was as close to a masterpiece as I was ever going to get.

That last night, I logged onto similac.com and submitted my piece with confidence. Over the next four months my mind came alive with dreams of what I would do with the prize money. Maybe I’d finally get out of this crummy apartment and put a down-payment on a house. I could pay my husband’s tuition for his final two semesters. Get my kids health insurance. I’d dress them with clothes from BabyGap and the Children’s Place instead of using hand-me-downs and dumpster finds. We would look like the mothers and children in all the glossies at the pediatrician’s office as soon as August 15th came and I was awarded MOM’S BIG PAY DAY.

Well August 15th came and went with no phone call from Similac. I was disappointed, then furious when a few days later I read the winning entry online. Even though it was only 100 words, I barely made it through the whole thing. “I can’t believe this!” I shook my computer monitor. “This essay isn’t the least bit original! It’s actually boring!”

I sighed and shut off the computer, made dinner, nursed the baby, changed the baby, put my toddler to bed, sung my baby to sleep, and covered dinner’s leftovers with plastic wrap for my husband to eat when he came back from class. Then I sat down, stared at the hamper full of dirty clothes, and cried.

I deserved that money, I told myself. I work so hard and the only people who care can’t even talk yet. In that moment I deeply wished I was back at my old job as managing editor of a newspaper. There I got attention. I got validation. I got paid.

Before getting ready for bed I stepped into my children’s bedroom and peered in at their sleeping faces. I knew they couldn’t possibly have looked more beautiful if they were sleeping in pajamas from BabyGap.

What was really bothering me was the loneliness of motherhood. I wanted someone to tell me I was doing alright. That they understood how frustrating things could be and it was okay if I wasn’t doing things like all the mothers in magazines. I was still worth big bucks.

But I suspected even winning a big wad of cash wouldn’t have really helped me feel better. My thoughts of inadequacy would probably never go away. It was just part of being a mom—the real job description.

Suddenly a heavy, depressing feeling came over me. I felt so alone. I rubbed my baby’s back, trying not to cry again, then kissed my toddler’s forehead and pulled his quilt around him. He opened his eyes, just for a moment, startling me. His eyes were so bright in the moonlight. I looked at the walls for confetti light, expecting his eyes would act like prisms.

“Mmmm,” my son said, lifting his chubby hand to lovingly touch my face before drifting back to sleep.

“I love you, too,” I whispered, feeling instantly lighter.

I softly closed my children’s bedroom door and returned to the computer. I stared at my contest entry for a long time. Then I changed the title from “Job Description of a Mother” to “Pieces” and rewrote the whole thing. This wasn’t something for the world to see. It didn’t herald my mothering successes. This was about the beauty I felt right in this moment, captured so I could revisit it on other nights when I’m wondering why I choose to be a mother.

I know now the idea of one big pay day for any mom is silly. Moms pay checks come in pieces. I’ll keep having days where the hamper makes me cry. But every now and then I’ll experience a moment when my child’s touch will take my breath away.

And that’s enough.