In 2003, a few years after I graduated from college, an American Journalism Review piece came out called “Vacancies in Vacaville” highlighting how small, local papers faced a staff shortage because young journalists were cooling to the idea of toiling at a paper nobody ever heard of in return for equally unimpressive pay.
It resonated with me because my first job as a reporter had in fact landed me in a Vacaville of sorts. After graduation in late 1998, I got in my car and drove across the Carolinas, stopping to interview at tiny papers in postage-stamp towns. I smiled politely over a lot of plates of collards and paper-piled desks before accepting a job as the sports editor of The Havelock News, in a North Carolina town of the same name. The paper’s circulation was whisper-thin and running the sports section meant covering everything up to and including Little League and fishing tournaments. I laid out the sports section in the waning years of paste-up still being a thing. After my time there, I moved on for a short stint to help out at the sister paper up the road, The New Bern Sun Journal, before arriving at The Daily Reflector in Greenville, N.C., for a few years. The Palm Beach Postwould come later. Today, it’s these smaller, local papers I’m thinking about.
At The Havelock News, my colleagues were a husband-and-wife publisher-editor duo who were a reasonable facsimile of a power couple in a town best known for its military base; a jack-of-all-trades guy named Tom who was the news department, photographer, and circulation system all rolled into one; and a few ad sales folks who liked to dissect the local high school football team’s performance that week with me while they chain-smoked out front. At the Sun-Journal and the Reflector, I came to know more incredibly kind, incredibly dedicated journalists who didn’t obsess about when they’d move up to a major metro paper, but rather, focused on giving something of value to the town they served every day.
There were the senior columnists who held the institutional memory of the town and for whom you actually wanted to add a “Mister” before their names because they were old enough to be your grandfather and they had as much gravitas. The editorial writers who served as the collective local conscience, or at least tried to remind everyone that they should use their own each day. The lifestyles writers who knew where to send you when what you needed was the lighter but no less crucial stuff in life – barbecue and pie, a good craft beer, live music, a spot to gaze up at the stars on meteor shower nights. Reporters who went after shady county commissioners one day and dove into a strawberry festival the next, without being patronizing about the latter. Editors – great editors – who worked with cub reporters unaware of how to locate their ass in relation to their elbow, coaching them patiently, aware that these kids would likely move on in a year or two, but treating it as an investment in the kid and the profession itself.
Local papers are located in strip malls and anonymous office parks. They’ve got nondescript furniture and stained carpets and break rooms with coffee pots that haven’t been properly washed in a decade, if ever. (The high-definition digital screens displaying real-time, online metrics in the closest major city’s newsroom might as well be the moon.) At local papers still occupying an original building dedicated by long-gone town elders, they’ve got a cramped back room where artifacts like old photos, ancient lead typeface, and yellowed back issues are piled. It’s a room that gives that particular generation of the paper a sense of their responsibility for unspooling the thread of the town’s story at that moment in history. How what they do matters no less than what the guys at the bigs do.
A small, local paper’s staff is a microcosm of the town. You build friendships, taking time to talk about each other’s hobbies and pets and kids in a way that’s not rushed, superficial workplace chitchat but is instead borne out of genuine curiosity because it’s a curious lot attracted to this job. You bitch about and to the editors together. You can stand up in News and lob a jab at someone in Sports and Features hears it and joins in. You’re connected, physically and emotionally, in a way that just doesn’t always happen at the large papers. On the hardest days – a harrowing murder needs covering, or Sept. 11 happens – you pull each other through and then slump into the same bar booth together that night and cry or just stare off into space together or offer each other words of comfort and the darkest gallows humor the moment calls for. Then you all get up the next morning and do it again. From scratch. Together.
Yesterday, the fraternity of men and women who help unspool that thread of local storytelling suffered an unspeakable blow. Today, an awful lot of us who ever got paid a little bit to find the words, simply can’t.