Garrison Keillor quit the radio business for a while until he realized that since he was not doing it any more, he had great ideas for his show. Similarly, now that I am not a reporter any more, I think a lot about the job and some aspects of small town reporting. I thought some of my observations may be interesting to the public and perhaps useful.
Journalists are forced into specializing at the big city papers, but those in the smaller towns such as De Queen cannot specialize, but deal with a great range and mixture of newsworthy happenings. For example, on Monday, the reporter may be scribbling painstaking notes at a major trial, hoping to get all the details right for an article. On Tuesday, the small-town journalist’s assignment may be as mundane as a minor fender-bender on Collin Raye Drive. Because of the variety of issues the reporter confronts, the individual remains mentally and physically flexible in running around, and telephoning around, and e-mailing around, getting the varied articles shaped up for publication.
The best reporters become their own editors, putting themselves into the shoes of their readers. By doing so, they are meticulous in at least three areas. First, they insist on Standard English in Associated Press style, using simple and direct sentences. Second, they unambiguously nail down the who-what-when-where-why of a story. Third, they remain objective, not letting their own points of view leak through the language. In short, the good reporter’s preoccupation is constantly with clarity, accuracy and economy of expression.
Further, the small-town reporter nurtures positive relationships with such people as the mayor, the sheriff, the police chief, the civic clubs, the school administrators, the Chamber president, ministers and certain societal elements that are in the know about cultural and other matters. I am not saying that the reporter must have an outgoing or attractive personality. The person must, however, be interested in forming and maintaining positive relationships with a variety of people in the community. And, just as the reporter must put together information from a variety of different personalities, the person must also be able to assemble stories from diverse and sometimes divergent materials.
For example, when I was reporting full time for The Bee, one of the most challenging weekly stories to construct was the Circuit Court report, even though the research required was right down my alley. As a research scholar, I learned to synthesize data from multiple sources and present meaningful conclusions based upon that data. As a journalist, however, my reporting materials were the Circuit Court Docket along with my varied files from the police and sheriff incidents. Because the people involved in litigation read the paper carefully, accuracy was foremost. I believe it took me longer to write those reports than any other, unless it would be actual court trials.
The main skill I learned as a newspaper man was that of objectivity. This lesson can be summarized by the phrase, “It’s not about me.” In fact, that simple phrase can help us through many complex tasks, not just in reporting. In a sense, just about any endeavor requires reporting and that part of the job must be done with the integrity demonstrated by small-town reporters.