Don Rogers: Podunk, but also precious
An overriding value at a community newspaper is participation. Our big city cousins go more for exclusivity.
That’s a huge gap, actually, and might permeate all of our differences.
“Community,” of course, is an euphemism for small-town, provincial, country, even quaint. Dinky dailies and weeklies that harken green eyeshades and Norman Rockwell paintings. Often dismissed as hick, hayseed, podunk.
In weeding out, the metros and national papers seek excellence of thought and expression. Only the best gets in. Determining this excellence are editors carefully chosen and educated for their discernment, serious gatekeepers indeed.
This only makes sense — supply and demand, after all. David Halberstam’s classic “The Powers That Be” focused on The New York Times, The L.A. Times and The Washington Post and not the Sierra Sun or The Union for good reason.
I enjoyed colleagues who knew Halberstam and/or had worked with people he included in his book, a favorite of mine. Have to confess I bought drinks after work for one who had been on the L.A. Times team that won a Pulitzer for coverage of the Watts rioting in 1965 and was winding up his career a hopeless drunk at my smallest of community papers in the late ’80s.
But oh he had stories. I’d mention a hero. “Oh, that a…,” he’d say, and off we’d go into the lore, often including tours in Vietnam. Vietnam was where many in his generation of journalists cut their teeth.
Another colleague and friend a decade later in San Diego had won the Ernie Pyle Award for his work in Vietnam while with Newsday. He went on to a stint as managing editor of the New York Post and a long career at The New York Times. I think he knew Halberstam. Seemed he knew everyone else.
We’d shoot hoops at a nearby park before heading into the main newsroom (we had nine) of the North County Times for the afternoon page one meeting. I’d soak in all his stories while talking the requisite trash about our East Coast-West Coast fandom.
His urbane sophistication easily took in knowing all about sports, too. This guy could talk intelligently about anything with anyone. To me, he was the consummate newsman. All that and a deadly set shot, too, I’d joke, though only because he was too old by then for jumping.
Up to the Great Recession, the newspaper world worked something like professional baseball. A typical career progressed from Single A to Triple A to The Show — New York, D.C., L.A. And Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago. But San Francisco, Portland and Seattle didn’t get nearly enough respect, I thought, dismissed in certain company like Denver and Dallas and Toledo.
Snobbery holds in all fields. We even had it in wildland firefighting. You hear it most amusingly in smug parents discussing universities of choice. The simple truth is you’ll get a step or two ahead if you go to a school and get a degree. Only a third of us do.
The minors-to-majors path has broken down a bit as the big papers struggle even more than the small ones. A couple of years ago, The New York Times infamously jettisoned their copy desk, where due diligence on the reporting and writing once was such my friend was sent for a couple of months to an obscure African nation that no longer exists after asking the spelling of the king’s name. No one knew. Go find out, the copy desk chief said.
The best and the brightest don’t seem to be quite as drawn anymore to the big shops, which have shed journalists like old skin these past dozen years. I don’t know that the mighty will fall, but there’s certainly been a humbling of our cousins up in the ether.
I also think a clue lies in the percentage of Americans with college degrees, a distinct minority. The “excellent” big papers have long catered to this slice of society, the one with higher income and deeper interest in civic matters — to a degree of exclusivity that’s maybe not so great.
The more humble operations have been all about their ordinary citizens participating in the content, thereby better reflecting a community in all its quirks and personality and sensibilities.
Metropolitan refugees and retirees here sometimes mean to chide or mock by calling us a bulletin board and complain how we’ll let just about anyone in our pages.
Yes, exactly, I say to their bewilderment. It’s all about contribution, welcoming in rather than holding away, coming together.
Collectively, this is our best shot at figuring things out. First you seek to understand fully, warts and all, what you agree with and what you don’t, sensible and hairball. Next you take in as wide a range of views about possible solutions as you possibly can. A wise member of a community knows they’ll find exactly that in their community paper.
Pure gold, if you ask me.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.