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I’ve never considered myself to be a smart person. Perhaps, if I were I would have chosen a different career path. One that required a whole lot less hours and paid me a whole pile of money.
But, I discovered at a young age that I had a knack for jotting down bits of information and crafting them into a story. My advanced English teacher told me that I had talent for writing.
It was that love of the written word and finding just the right word to make a sentence combined with curiosity that prompted me to go into journalism.
At Eastern Kentucky University, I eagerly took journalism classes and honed my writing. As a reporter on the student newspaper, I learned to ask tough questions and take the “heat” from other students when those combined for a story in the paper.
I reported about several dorm break-ins and rapes on campus, only to be confronted after I left the newspaper office late one night, by a large angry student whom I’m pretty sure was carrying a knife.
I’m used to taking heat in this business, it is just part of being a community newspaper editor. I’ve always told my staff that when we hear from readers, even if they’re screaming and red-faced, it means they care about what we write and that’s something we never want to lose.
Just last week I took a phone call from an irate reader.
I’ll confess that they had a right to be angry over the fact that I incorrectly printed their group’s meeting date more than once. I apologized because I was at fault.
To make a long story short, she said the apology meant little because I was purposefully putting the meeting in the paper wrong because of my political party affiliation. She went on to say she couldn’t believe that I didn’t support her political party because they were avid supporters of cancer programs, which she knows is near to me because of my volunteer work with the American Cancer Society.
She even suggested that the newspaper could find other things besides the Grant County Relay For Life to support in our community.
Unfortunately, she didn’t give me a chance to tell her about the many groups and organizations that the newspaper supports each week by giving free ad space or going to their events and taking photographs, or publishing editorials encouraging people to give or get involved or even writing stories to bring attention to those great causes.
That’s a lot of theory behind a simple mistake of getting a date wrong on the calendar.
Most of what goes into our newspaper is good news – academic achievement at the schools, a scout project, community fundraisers and milestone events like birthdays, births, weddings and anniversary announcements.
We also have a responsibility to publish stories that can be categorized as negative or bad news. That type of news might be about a tragedy or loss of life, a fire or wreck or burglary. Sometimes it’s just a story that certain people would like to keep quiet or at least not read about it in the local newspaper.
That’s what makes community journalism, especially in a close-knit, small town like ours difficult, but that’s the nature of what we do.
It may or may not surprise some readers to know that after we’ve published a story about someone in the community who has committed a crime or been removed from office, we’ve heard about our decision to print that news.
Sometimes it has come in the form of the subject’s family making rude gestures whenever they see someone from the News’ staff, other times it has been in the form of employees of the News being “banned” from certain places or events. Once an angry man who didn’t like a story on a headline about a fire at his home came to my office with a rolled up newspaper. I was pretty sure he was going to hit me with it.
There have been times when elected officials refused to speak to myself or other reporters because of something published in the newspaper.
To this day, there are places that I go that people get up and leave a room when I walk in or turn their head so they don’t have to look at me because of a story in the newspaper.
There have also been the times that the subject of a “bad” news story was an advertiser and they took great offense to a story about them, even threatening to stop advertising with us or pulling their advertising when they didn’t like a story.
But we believe that most of our readers want and expect us to tell them what’s going on around them.
We believe they want to know if someone they drink their morning coffee with has been fined for illegal dumping into a neighborhood stream, even if it’s someone they go to church with every Sunday.
We believe the community wants to know if a pedophile is arrested for exposing himself to children at Wal-Mart and readers want to know if some bored juveniles knock over historic tombstones at the cemetery because they thought it was fun, even if those same juveniles play on their son’s baseball team.
The journalist will bear the wrath of the dumper, the hang up calls from the pedophile’s family and the mean remarks from the juvenile’s parents, as well as all the other’s who feel the shame of having their names in the paper.
Even when the newspaper and same journalist has written other stories about the academic achievements of the pedophile’s children or published countless little league photos of the juveniles, we can still bear the brunt of the family’s anger for years to come.
They sure didn’t teach me these things in journalism school. Even after 20 years in the business, every once in awhile, I’m surprised by a phone call or letter or maybe it’s just the fact that the motives assigned to myself and my reporters amaze me. We are human beings too and most of the time a mistake is just a mistake.
I’m not sorry I chose community journalism. I don’t regret the time the job requires to cover community events even when I could have been spending time with my family or doing other things.
I’ve not gone hungry or wanting because I didn’t make mega bucks at a corporate job, but some days I’m just left scratching my head.
I do write all these encounters down and figure when I finally get around to writing my book, I’ve got a ready reference of characters.
(Jamie Baker-Nantz is editor of the Grant County News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 859-824-3343.)