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.