Veteran staff member retires,
but principles need to live on
Tuesday, June 24, 2014 3:34 AM
A steady stream of people filed into the Tri-County Record office in Rushford Friday to say farewell to Ron Witt, who was retiring after being a reporter for the community newspaper since 1990. He meant a lot to the community, knowing it better than most local residents even though he lived outside Rushford.
I only worked with him for a little over a year and appreciated his vast knowledge of Rushford. Since he had worked in the field for 48 years in California and Minnesota, he had also accumulated a vast knowledge about the ins and outs of journalism. I sure appreciated his wisdom and grounding in the tradition of journalism.
It's a tradition that seems to be slipping away.
With the struggles of the media today, people are thrown in the job without the background, resulting in feature stories that are personal essays, meeting reports that are merely minutes and hard news stories that don't hit the main point at the start, or sometimes at all.
Even journalism graduates don't have the same grounding, as their studies are stretched wider to include such things as multimedia, which have become a part of even the print media today.
Technology has made it easy to gather news, but also made it easy to do sloppy reporting and avoid real, live people who are at the core of our mission.
An editor who is part of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors recently asked his colleagues what advice they would give to someone just starting out in community journalism. The responses, from editors across the country, and even the globe, give some insight into what we are all about.
Here are a few of their recommendations:
Eighty percent of the people will love what you do, 20 percent will hate what you do no matter what you do. Serve the 80 percent with your best work and listen to the 20 percent because sometimes they are right.
Get out of the building! Do in-person interviews. Press the flesh. Visit offices. Go to events. See people. Don't just sit at your desk and make phone calls and send emails, but get out there and get into the thick of things.
Let these three things guide all your decision making: Is it accurate? Is it complete? Is it fair?
Don't hold grudges. People may not call you back. They may try to handle you. But be professional and report the facts and they will respect you for it at the end of the day.
Make a community weekly a scrapbook of the community. Photos of people of all ages. Hard news. Big news. School news. Sports news. Sad news. Happy news. Readers' accomplishments. News of those loved. News of those nobody loves. Feature stories. Expanded obituaries - everyone's life has an interesting story. News that ends up on the refrigerator, in the family scrapbook or Bible.
Remember you are the reporter or editor of your newspaper, quite simply, a representative of your business and if not, already, a member of your community. Act professional and remember in a small community someone is always listening and watching.
Honor your readers: Seek the truth, come where it will and cost what it may.
Remain visible. You can't cover a house fire from your office nor can you do the same with a council meeting. Put the phone down and get out of your chair. You may meet new and interesting people and potential sources you have not met before in your reporting. Also, the more visible you are people will begin to learn you're passionate of your writing and the community you cover.
Join clubs or new organizations. Not only will you meet new people and potential sources, you may also have fun.
In every community, no matter how big or how small, there is a power structure, but don't go in. It will compromise you. The only way to maintain your independence -and the independence of your newspaper - is to chart your own course, outside the power structure. And keep a watchful eye on the power structure.
Not all editors would agree with every recommendation from their colleagues, but these provide a good basis for what we are looking for in our staff members.
Community journalism isn't easy. There is a fine line between being a part of the community, yet apart from the community in some ways. There is also a fine line between serving private enterprise in order to remain viable, yet serving local residents as an independent community institution to maintain integrity.
For you, the reader, I hope these glimpses provide some insight into the difficulties we face as well as a sense of what we are trying to accomplish in our community newspapers.