In my college journalism classes, professors often urged us up-and-coming Woodward and Bernsteins to shoot for working at a small-town newspaper when we graduated.
Even with little experience, they told us, we would have the opportunity to write real stories, as opposed to trying to make a break on crumbs cast off from more established reporters at a bigger paper. We’d also have the chance to write many different types of stories and get a whole breadth of clips under our belts.
They were exactly right.
My “beat” is mostly courts and crime, military and Grantsville City, but it also encompasses transportation, outlying towns, Erda and the arts. I have written stories on almost every topic imaginable (including, now, sports), and plenty of them. I’ve crunched budget numbers, learned to traverse thorny legal paths, been chased by livestock and wildlife, sloshed through floods, felt the furnace-like blast of a big fire and—all while on the job—talked to a lot of people from different backgrounds and walks of life.
What my professors failed to mention, though, is the biggest challenge of a small-town newspaper: keeping a story to yourself.
The point of a local paper is to report all of the little things the larger media outlets don’t care much about, like routine city council meetings, new local businesses, school plays or traffic hazards that really only matter to people who live here. On occasion, though, something happens that does draw the attention of the bigger fish — and then it’s feeding time.
Equipped with resources smaller papers like the Transcript-Bulletin simply does not have, larger media can swoop in and take the story for themselves, teasing it on Twitter before their 5 p.m. broadcast or morning edition, then dropping the picked-over remains for us non-dailies.
Sometimes this is unavoidable. When something happens over the weekend, in particular, it’s a given that KSL is going to throw a blurb on their website two or three days before we print our Tuesday edition. It can be frustrating, but these things happen. And sometimes fortune favors our deadlines, like Tooele County announcing its complicated cancellation of the county fair Tuesday morning, just in time to squeeze it onto the front page.
Other times, though, it’s a game of hope and crossed fingers. Like the alleged robbery of Wells Fargo on March 11 and subsequent arrest of William and Michelle Parker, which we somehow were able to break in our March 12 issue. On the other hand, the FBI investigation into the Parkers regarding other bank robberies broke on a Wednesday and was old news by the time we could print it Thursday, even though we had most of the information six days before.
I guess we could throw everything onto our website as it happens, too, or make our twice-weekly publication a daily. But that would mean having to research, interview and write more stories in less time. With the size of our staff, that would be difficult to achieve without compromising accuracy and integrity at the reader’s expense.
Weekends spent checking Twitter every five minutes to make sure someone hasn’t stolen your scoop are tough, but in times like that, it’s best to focus on the perks of working at a non-daily newspaper. Things like almost being guaranteed at least most of a weekend, whereas on a 24-hour newscycle, which I know from experience, you might get two days off a week, and they’re not always together.
Or the more altruistic perk that community news is truer to the essence of journalism; you get to write about things that affect real people—and if something’s not right, you can count on those real people to tell you. It’s more interactive, and sometimes you get to see the fruits of your labor. And with the incredibly diverse list of topics every small-town reporter covers, it’s a sure bet you won’t get bored.
Of course, those thoughts don’t always take away the frustration that can only come from seeing a less complete/incorrect/butchered version of your hard-earned scoop blasted on the 10 o’clock news.
But then, the flip side is the nice rush that can only come from beating the sleepless media at its own game. That agony and ecstasy exists for almost every reporter regardless of the size of their market. Journalists are often regarded as irreverent, or maybe even godless heathens, and sometimes that’s true. But I’m pretty sure there is as much praying going on in newsrooms as in churches, only it’s likely directed at asking the reporter’s diety of choice to hold off the competition for just a few more hours, please please please. It’s never a good thing to have bad things happen, but in the world of deadlines and headlines, it’s hard not to initiate smug mode over a good scoop.
I think my professors mentioned something about that, too. They were spot on.