Today, I picked up the first issue of the Kent County News which featured an article by yours truly. It’s my third day on the job, and there’s nothing like seeing your own byline in print to inspire you to work even harder. And there’s nothing like a sudden, tragic event to get a real sense of what it’s like to work for a weekly, community newspaper.
For my first published story, I drove out to Rock Hall Maryland and interviewed a man on the happiest day of his life. Today, the Kent News is covering the darker side of community news: last night, we got a call about a three farmers who drowned in a manure lagoon a few miles away.
Trish, my editor and supervisor, is only an open door away from me. From my desk, I can listen to her call up all of her farming and agricultural contacts, from family friends to former interviewees. The trouble with writing such a sensitive story for a small-town newspaper is, of course, the intimacy and closeness of the community. Kent County is small enough that there’s a pretty high probability of running into someone you’ve interviewed before at the grocery store, so making friendly connections is particularly important.
It isn’t unlike writing and editing for my college newspaper, actually. At most schools, reporters are discouraged from interviewing friends or covering stories they’re directly involved in; at a college of under 2,000, everyone knows everyone, and it’s virtually impossible to cover a news event that you’re not in some way connected to.
Trish is an expert at handling these kinds of sticky situations. She balances professionalism with friendliness during her interviews, knowing full well that making personal connections might be key for later stories. With this particular story, she prefaces her phone interviews: “I know this is a tough time for you, and I understand if you don’t feel comfortable talking to me.” She even reads back the quotes, making sure the subject feels satisfied with what he or she has contributed on the tragic event.
There’s a misconception that journalists make enemies wherever they go, that they’re out to ruin reputations and get some sort of sick delight from writing about others’ misfortunes and embarrassments. I’ve certainly run into a few journalists who are in the field for the wrong reasons, but most of us, I like to think, treat our subjects with respect. Trish has been working at this newspaper for more than 20 years, but she’s in no way hardened toward tragedy and death. If anything, writing article after article about such topics has provided her with a sensitivity and understanding about mortality and the hard facts of life that most people prefer to avoid.
Journalism sometimes means reporting on things that no one wants to read about. It isn’t always pleasant, but it’s a part of the job. Not every story is going to be about a lottery-winning groundskeeper; some are about tragic farming accidents, and although I’m sure Trish didn’t enjoy making those awkward phone calls this morning, she followed through. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.