Posted by: justawriter | October 7, 2009

Far Afield – Reflections on being a newspaperman

Growing up I never intended to be a reporter. In the heady days of Apollo, and I will admit – Star Trek, I wanted to do something with science. But in my 30s, I happened to fall into a position as a reporter, found that I loved the work and for the most part people enjoyed what I wrote. Never underestimate the power of positive feedback to make up for long hours and low pay.
In the 15 or so years since then I have developed an appreciation for the things that make newspapers special. In many ways, they bind people together especially in smaller communities like those that dot the North Dakota countryside. I’m sure most people in Beulah have said or heard at one time, “I saw you were in the paper.” For many, it is a sign that they have had an impact on their community and have left a mark that will be remembered.
I think I am very lucky to have the position I do. I get a ringside seat at much of what goes on in and around Beulah. As the cliché goes, I get to write the first draft of history. It is a responsibility I take seriously. Years from now, if anyone is still interested in what went on in Beulah, they will go to the archives of the Beacon and read my words. This paper will be one of the main connections between us and the generations to come.
Over my years, I have had a front row seat to fires and floods (and floods, and floods, and floods). I have witnessed incredible acts of generosity from neighbors and strangers who have reached out to those suffering from disease, accident or disaster. I tend to meet people either at the highest or lowest points of their life, and I try to relate their stories with the respect they deserve.
There is another side to reporting as well. After all, not everything that is important is necessarily interesting. There is a reason that I am usually the only person outside of the officials at city and county meetings. The real work of government will never make it to prime time, I’m afraid. A pothole or broken water main is hardly a compelling enemy around which to create a drama.
But for a community, state or nation to survive and prosper, citizens need to know what their elected officials are up to. My job at these meetings is to figure out what my readers should know about what is going on and try to lay out that information in a way that you will actually read. After all, if nobody reads what I have to say about the city or the county, I could as well have stayed home.
The problem is that much of government’s responsibility is making sure the routine stays routine. We want water when we turn on the tap, the toilet to flush when we are done using it, the roads to be open and smooth and the schools to teach our children. It is only when these things stop being routine that they become “news.” It takes the work of many people and millions of dollars to make life a slow news day in Beulah. I feel it is part of my job to appreciate the work that is being done on my behalf and try to help my readers appreciate it as well.
The other part of the newspaper’s job is to try and tell the small stories. The little victories and crises that bind us together as people. These are the stories that make us a community rather than a bunch of individuals that happen to be in the same place. The paper sets aside space for birth announcements and obituaries to welcome new arrivals and bid old friends farewell. Wedding and engagement announcements commemorate the beginning of new families. We provide space for our houses of worship to share their ministry. There are notices of dances, feeds, motorcycle runs, school events and so much more. These are the glue that makes us Beulah, instead of just the spot where Highway 49 crosses the Knife River.
It is National Newspaper Week. All around the country papers are reflecting on their roles in their communities. The theme for this year’s commemoration is “Carrying the Torch of Liberty.” The press has a privileged place in this country, being the only nongovernment profession singled out in the Constitution of the United States. Along with this privilege has come great responsibility.
Sometimes I reflect on my professional forebears who carried this responsibility with dignity and professionalism. I think of Ernie Pyle in particular, who lived and went into war zones in the Pacific with the troops he loved so he could tell the story from the common soldier’s point of view. He made the same sacrifice as far too many soldiers did, falling to a Japanese bullet in the waning days of the war.
Happily, I don’t think I will face such dramatic end as I cover the school board or the next fleischkuechla feed. But I will take the concerns and issues that face Beulah as seriously as if it were a world event. I will find your stories and tell them to the best of my ability. Thank you for letting me have that privilege.

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