Don Rogers: Tested by fire
Forgive my boasting, please.
The same spirit that had reporter Liz Kellar step back into her burning home two years ago to retrieve a laptop and then spend the rest of the night covering the McCourtney and Lobo fires had a handful of journalists swarming Sunday to the little wildfire at Sutton and Dorsey.
There was Elias Funez, who we thought down with a flu bug, shooting live video. There was weekend reporter Sam Corey. There was Liz again, and Editor Brian Hamilton just barely back from vacation, and of course John Hart, the 50-year veteran photographer at The Union who in retirement still manages to be first on the scene, every scene.
Two years ago, he reached out to Brian even before Liz was back from braving flames herself. “Might want to get on this,” I think he told Brian laconically as always. They all covered the fires through the long night as most of us slumbered. Those of us not in harm’s way.
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All the breaking news reporters and their editors do this. Hannah Jones and Justin Scacco up in Truckee and the lake. Alan Riquelmy and John Orona round out our pale form of Delta Force in Grass Valley. I’d say it’s just part of the job, but it seems inevitably to come after the day’s work is done. That’s my memory from working in newsrooms, anyway.
I behold these people in these moments for their own value, but also because this may not happen so often a few years out.
Journalism in the not-so-distant future will more and more likely to be practiced from afar, with befuddled big city reporters parachuting into town late. And through online-only solo operations with practitioners mostly chained to their basement desks to keep up with posting and commenting. Government entities and companies will drop in their own messages, always careful about projecting the right image and maybe leaving out some things that journalists would be sure to share.
Facebook and the like promise plenty of crowd sourcing but little real information and so much of it laced with stuff that’s just wrong. Don’t get me going about Facebook deciding it’s OK to lie outright since they’re only a platform like a phone network and bear no responsibility for what they broadcast and their algorithms let us each see, basically. Somewhere far away, Russians and Chinese and Iranians are licking their chops. Oh my.
This is life in America’s growing news deserts already, with 1,800 newspapers in the past 15 years just gone. Other media aim to fill in, certainly. But research shows taxes going up and municipalities running maybe a little loose and more expensively without the attention. On a civic level anyway, the podunk little papers matter quite a lot, actually.
Hear that, Republicans who think we’ve gone way, way too lefty? Even so, take the paper so taxes and local government spending don’t go through the roof. Yes, I know, liberals are at least as fed up with so much of the conservative viewpoint in our pages. Some perceptions will never end.
It’s not only the journalists I’m proud of. The sales folks, unsung and vastly underestimated, do as much or more to improve our community through their ingenuity helping clients survive and thrive. The same forces disrupting local news media are challenging all the other local businesses, after all.
Speaking of ingenuity, the onset of PG&E power shutoffs has brought out the best in our distribution department and carriers not knowing from one day to the next where we’ll get the paper printed — our regular printer in Auburn at the home of the Auburn Journal or our own company’s press in Carson City.
Our press in Carson also prints Reno’s Gazette-Journal along with the Sacramento, Chico and Reno News & Reviews. It’s not easy squeezing in the extra daily on short notice. Thanks to them and thanks as well to The Sacramento Bee offering help to us and many other papers in our position.
While feeling grateful, I’d better thank our families who have to put up with our disappearances, often at exactly the worst times.
I remember a romantic dinner long before the kids in Quincy when emergency vehicles sped sirens blazing right past the restaurant, my wife locking eyes with me and saying, “Don’t you move, no way, don’t you move, enough of this … .” Of course I eventually followed the sirens to the inevitable wreck miles down the highway. That was the job.
A couple of miles from home in Illinois on our way back from vacation in South Dakota, where we’d been chased by a tornado, I pulled over while the whole family hollered, “Don’t you dare!” But a house was ablaze and I was there with my camera. “It’ll only be a few minutes,” I promised. Then I almost walked into a downed live wire, so focused was I on getting the right image.
True emergency services pros get more respect, and that’s perfectly understandable. But those sometimes annoying breaking news reporters and their editors deserve admiration, too. Having experienced careers in both worlds, they all have mine.
Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent, and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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