Not too long ago, one of our reporters walked through the newsroom holding a competitor’s newspaper, saying, “Hey, have you seen this story about giant snails?” That attracted interested looks all around.
In a staff meeting later I asked: “When was the last time any of us did that with our newspaper?” Heads nodded. We understood.
Before that time, I’m sure I never chose the word “snail” to describe what I look for in a good news story or in an aspiring journalist — but it works. When community newspaper editors go looking for people, which is most of the time, they’re looking for “snail” people. These are the ones who get excited by what they find around them. They’re motivated to find out more about those things — and they get especially excited about telling everybody else about them.
That’s good, but excitement just gets us started. After an editor finds someone this eager to work, it really helps if they like words, and know something about how to use them. Maybe, too, they understand that the best spellers in the world are the ones who keep their dictionaries close by.
These good spellers — with dictionary or without — also tend to be the people who understand the importance of precision — that it changes the meaning of a story about Social Security if the source you’re quoting is 72 or 27, and that it’s important that a source’s name be spelled correctly.
Editors really like these people: the ones who enjoy writing but recognize that the better a story is reported, the easier it is to write and the better that story ultimately turns out to be.
Now, it’s a sad thing, but editors have a tendency to get old and set in their ways. Who would have guessed it? So they also need folks who challenge and push them, keep them growing, thinking and rethinking. Not that editors are ever wrong, of course, but it’s a useful exercise. I have found that when editors are stretched, good things tend to happen in their newspapers.
All of these journalistic traits are important, but personal traits are no less crucial. Simply put, news organizations need people who are sensitive. They are sensitive to the needs of readers and sources. At its very best, journalism cares deeply about its community and its people. This journalism is natural, logical, sensible, appropriate.
The people who do this best bring to the work as much empathy as intelligence and toughness. These journalists include rather than exclude; they are driven to stand for those with few advocates; they are first to remember people others have forgotten.
And finally, they’re newshounds who are not satisfied unless they are first to know something and who want to have every story, every angle, every day, every time.
But these traits apply to all journalists, regardless of where they practice their craft. What about that special breed known as community journalists? These are the ones in smaller towns who write stories about the folks down the street or editorials about people at church. They see their sources in the grocery store. Their journalism always hits close to home — so close, in fact, there’s nowhere to hide.
It sounds uncomfortable — and sometimes it is — but it’s also journalism where it really counts, one on one, neighbor to neighbor. Those who do it well take a lot of pride in their communities and in their newspapers. They recognize that a community newspaper says a lot about its town and the people who live there. Without it, without its voice, or if the paper is dull or timid, the town is a lesser place.
Community journalists recognize this responsibility and relish it. It’s part of what makes this a special calling.
So. A quick review: Editors want people who like words, understand precision and how to use a dictionary; people who will stretch their boss, care deeply about their community and its people, who are strong enough to hold onto a light in a dark place but kind enough to douse it when it’s the right thing to do — and who get excited about giant snails and even more excited about telling about them.
That’s a lot, but it describes a great group of people. If it describes you, I’m sure there is an editor nearby who would like to hear from you.