You never forget your first: Car, girl/boyfriend or newspaper, the place where you finally got to call yourself a real reporter. My first car was a 1964 Malibu convertible. The first girlfriend? No comment. But I will tell you about the first paper – a small weekly in Eastern Oregon.
I showed up for work, full of myself in the way college graduates often tend to be. I wore a tie and sport coat, and I carried a brand new briefcase that I figured made me look important. Inside were a sack lunch, a paperback dictionary and a pack of hopes and dreams.
Reality hit when the overworked editor dropped my first story assignment on my desk – something to do with the local Rotary lunch being held up the street at the coffee shop where the movers and shakers in town gathered for coffee every morning. During the next eight months I learned the words and melody to “Boost Kiwanis,” covered city council meetings that lasted until 1 a.m. and wrote about a local barbershop that warranted a story because it was expanding to a two-chair operation.
In college, my friends would gather around and talk about what they wanted to do when they graduated. For those nonjournalism majors, the transition from the classroom to the real world ended up being remarkably easy. The actuarial scientist found a job at a big firm in Chicago. The business major landed an executive-track position at a retail operation in Michigan. The pharmacy major was hired and wearing the white jacket a week later.
Those of us in journalism, though, found ourselves struggling to find jobs. No one – not even the smartest kids in the class – found work at a big or mid-sized paper. Eventually we became reporters at weeklies or small papers in obscure towns. And our professional lives, we soon discovered, were nothing like any of us had expected, or even trained for.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Of my classmates, I bet that fewer than 5 percent of us still work at a newspaper, something all of us planned on doing. The rest drifted into public relations or business. A few got into politics or returned to school for advanced degrees. What pushed so many off the track was their experience at the small newspaper – the first job out of college that ultimately determined if they’d make it in the business.
Small-town papers intrigue me. Not only do my roots lie there, but also it’s where journalism – for good or bad – is practiced at a grass-roots level. The journalism think tanks can debate the theory of community journalism forever, but work at a 7,000-circulation daily in Iowa, and you’ll live community journalism.
The years I spent at the weekly, and later a mid-size daily, helped shape me and lay the foundation for the reporter I eventually became. Over the past few years, I’ve met reporters and editors who work at such papers. The newsrooms remind me of the ones I once worked in. The editor may have a private office, but frequently sits among the reporters. The city editor edits copy, fills out the schedule and vacation requests and rarely has a reflective moment during the day. The reporters are usually young, although a veteran or two is scattered among them.
These are the papers that provide the lifeblood to our industry. From within these ranks will come the next generation of great reporters and editors. This is where the future Pulitzer Prize winners are learning their craft. This is where the future leaders will emerge, the leaders who will determine how we remain a viable industry in a world that is changing almost monthly.
Journalism schools are turning out better graduates than ever. The students are smarter, the professors not only are more demanding, but well-versed in teaching more than the basics of writing and reporting and the old standby, the inverted pyramid. But graduates who come out of college with high hopes too often find them dashed at the small paper.
That’s not to say that good work is not being produced. I’ve judged journalism contests during the past several years, and I’ve been struck by the quality of good work – features, news and investigative.
But conversations with reporters over a few drinks indicate that not all is well. During the past few months, I’ve interviewed editors and reporters at papers from across the country, and exchanged emails to get a sense of what life is like at these papers.
What they say reveals much about the state of journalism. If you’re a recent graduate, their comments will give you an idea of what you can expect when you arrive with your version of my briefcase. If you’re already at a small paper, you’ll discover that you’re not alone.
“Small town papers,” one reporter said, “are an excellent place to learn the craft of writing. They are a horrible place to learn the profession of journalism. From petty office politics, to vicious gossip. If you can survive your time at a small weekly, you’ll be prepared for anything the real world of a daily can throw at you.”
The reporter, like others, didn’t want their names used in this story for obvious reasons. The reporters and editors weren’t just blowing off steam. No paper is perfect, and every newsroom has grumblers. What they offered were thoughtful and constructive complaints that deserve to be heard.
The one constant at small newspapers seems to be that most staffers are looking to eventually move on. There are exceptions. But editors who are part of a chain often are sent to the small paper for a few years of seasoning, and reporters look at the job as temporary, setting their sights on moving to the big paper.
What seems to happen at many papers is there is no sense of advancement or growth. Reporters weren’t complaining about making more money, or covering more glamorous beats. Mid-level editors weren’t looking for more power or a better-sounding title.
The worry is that they aren’t being given chances to improve. As long as they turned in a story every couple days, all is well in the newsroom. Mid-level editors also want to grow, to work on the craft of editing, not just shoveling stories into the paper edition after edition. One young woman I spoke with got out of the business after two years because she felt she was no longer learning.
“Editors at small newspapers lack the skills, patience or both to work with reporters to help them improve at their jobs,” said one reporter.
No one expected to be given months to work on projects, investigative or narrative, but they wanted to do more than cover the city council meeting in the way it had always been covered. They wanted to talk about writing and reporting. But many reporters said there was either a lack of interest, or a lack of knowledge, from editors. So they floundered and faced two choices: be discouraged or just set the bar low enough to get by.
The walls between the business and editorial sides of an operation often are nonexistent at a small paper, something that was deemed a hard rule in the classroom.
“Advertising managers are putting pressure on the newsroom to produce tabs that have little journalistic value,” one reporter said. “Editors here have assigned three tabs this year. They take busy reporters away from doing more serious work. Tabs, I believe, are now the second biggest contributor to low morale at small newspapers, next to pay.”
Reporters were also honest about life outside the paper. For many reporters, working at a paper in a small town is like being dropped into another world.
“Working at a small newspaper in a strange town, as I have on numerous occasions,” a reporter shared, “provides eye-opening, character-building and occasionally scary experiences for young reporters, especially if they grew up with a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.”
This reporter said he had to interview a man who served four years in prison for killing his wife. When the ex-con announced his candidacy for a neighborhood association group the reporter mentioned the man’s criminal background in story. That angered the candidate and his supporters. Months later, the reporter bumped into the candidate at a restaurant. “I could have done something to you,” the ex-con warned the reporter.
“The ethics you learned in J-school take a back seat to the bottom line,” another reporter told me. “You get to see if you prefer a paycheck to ethics. Editors and publishers make deals with the locals – usually about advertising and stories. The two go hand-in-hand in a small town whether anyone says so or not.”
It sounds grim, but reporters, once they vented a bit, said that the small paper was shaping them in ways that they sensed would be beneficial if they stuck it out. Too many young journalists are impatient. They don’t want to pay their dues, covering the small-town school board or doing the types of stories that have nothing to do with what they thought was journalism.
“I cannot tell you how much this experience in community journalism has prepared me for an ongoing career,” said one reporter who works at a bi-weekly. “I write 8-10 stories a week, covering city hall, schools, parks, the planning commission. I’ve learned to work a regular beat, make contacts and develop story lists. Community journalism has taught me not to be too big for my britches, to appreciate people and the good things in life, and it’s given me so much experience in a variety of beats.”
Said another reporter: “You’ll get to cover every beat known to news – from courts to cops to the Rotary luncheon, education, business, religion and features. Great way to decide what you do and don’t want to cover later in life – kind of like doctors doing internships in different fields.”
One of the best things at a small paper is that you will write, usually a story a day.
“You learn how to interview mayors, councilmen, principals, businessmen and women, the old, the young, the brilliant, the not-so-brilliant and the local state representatives,” a reporter said. “You’ll develop your craft, your style, your interview skills and your organizational skills more in the first year at a small paper than you did in four years of J-school.”
Ann Fisher, state editor at the Columbus Dispatch, said she frequently gets resumes from reporters at small papers.
“They usually seem to work for one of two kinds of editors,” she said. “Either someone who was a reporter for a year and then promoted to an editor. That type of editor doesn’t know much more than the reporter. The other kind of editor is someone who has been at the paper for 50 years and is stuck in his ways. When I hire, I look for story ideas. I ask them what they couldn’t cover, because of either resources or lack of leadership – what held them back. Some of the best people I have working for me came from small papers.”
Reporters who work at those papers, she said, have to understand the limitations of a small paper and find ways to grow within the system.
“A person who reads the small-town paper likes to open the paper and see their kid’s photo from the football game,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But great journalism is not necessarily the mission statement of a small-town paper. They have a different relationship to their readers than we do.”
Attitude, not just raw talent, is as important as anything for the reporter who works at a small paper. The best advice came from Becky Blanton, who worked at a small paper and eventually moved on.
“Stay focused,” she said. “This is not the last journalism job you will have. You will move on. While I loved my experiences working at rural papers, I will never do it again. The townsfolk were awesome, the towns were wonderful. I made great friends. But the reality of small newspapers is they’re basically ads with stories on them.
“If you, by chance, find a place where you can do real journalism, stay with it as long as possible. Your editor/publisher is a rare gem, and you’ll never get the opportunity to do that kind of work again,” Blanton said. “And no matter what happens, you are not alone. There are thousands of small papers across the country, and other reporters are going through the same thing.”
Tom Hallman Jr. is a Pulitzer-Prize winning senior reporter for The Oregonian.