I didn’t plan to be a small-town community journalist, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else. Outside non-profits, there are few other ways to earn a living fulfilling a vital community need. And sadly, it’s a service fewer communities enjoy than ever before.
In college, I had originally planned on being a foreign correspondent. I imagined my career would have me traveling to exotic locations to cover war zones and natural disasters. I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I wanted some adventure doing it.
After finishing my graduate studies, I moved to Washington, D.C., which I thought would be a great place to break into journalism. As it turns out, the nation’s capital is a pretty tough job market for fledgling journalists. Competing with Columbia and American University grads for two years, I scored a single interview for a writing position.
The editor who was kind enough to interview me for that position was also kind enough to give me some career advice when he turned me down for the job: Without any experience, I wasn’t going to get my foot in the door at big-city publications, he warned.
He suggested I look at reporting opportunities in small towns, where they would love to have someone with some talent and a solid work ethic. Then, I could get some experience and move to a larger market.
Eventually, I landed a reporting position at a weekly newspaper in Tioga, North Dakota, a town of around 2,000 people. Just up the road from Tioga was the Jensens’ farm, which was decimated by one of the largest land-based oil spills in American history.
The company took full responsibility for the mess and initiated a gargantuan effort at its expense to clean up nearly 900,000 gallons of oil from what was once a productive wheat farm.
The accident was covered by all the national media, including the New York Times and CNN. The spill was a year old by the time I was hired and came to interview the Jensens for a follow-up story. The couple who owned the farm, Patty and Steve Jensen, was by that point pretty tired of interviews.
One of the hardest parts of being hounded constantly by reporters, they told me, was how agenda-driven the media could be. The Jensens have a lot to say about preventing these disasters from happening, but most of the national media just want to demonize the entire industry, using the Jensens’ story as a platform for their cause.
Even if I were inclined to use personal tragedies to advance my own agendas — and I’m not — the nature of community journalism makes that kind of insincerity difficult. After the story was published, I didn’t fly off to some city thousands of miles away. I would regularly encounter Mrs. Jensen at the grocery store.
This kind of personal relationship with sources creates an incentive for local reporters to get the story right and to balance perspectives. The people you write about are your neighbors. The decisions of local leaders personally impact your own life.
That’s not to say all local reporters are angels and never make mistakes, but it is to say they have a lot more skin in the game.
In the era of “fake news,” transmitted and reproduced by the millions in seconds, your local reporters are often much more reliable sources of information.
Yet, community journalism is going the way of the milk man. A study last year by the University of North Carolina found that 1,300 communities in the U.S. had lost all local news coverage. Since 2004, about 1,800 of 9,000 newspapers had merged or gone out of business. Many of those still publishing had greatly scaled back their coverage.
Rather than move on to bigger opportunities, I found community journalism suited me. While lacking in the excitement and glamor of big-city reporting, it’s much more honest and democratic.
When interviewing for the position at the Powell Tribune, I saw a newsroom that is committed to that kind of quality community journalism. And I’m excited for this new opportunity to continue that tradition. I hope to make a living at it well into retirement.
(Kevin Killough began his new role as the Powell Tribune’s news editor on Monday, coming to Powell by way of Gillette. He can be reached at email@example.com.)