Small town journalism

by Cass Herrington

I vomit a little bit when I read stories about small towns, painted with rosy adjectives, like “quaint” and “friendly.”

Because they make me think about the town I’m living in right now. I don’t mean any disrespect to Evansville, Ind. (population 200,000), nor to its surrounding river towns. But these gushy descriptions devalue the legitimacy of small towns’ residents, commerce and social problems.

I’ll admit, I was to blame for perpetuating that small-town myth.

When I moved from Chicago to Evansville for my first full-time job, I thought, “this will be a cinch.” I imagined covering city council meetings, where the rowdiest decisions would involve snowplow deployments or street permits for farmer’s markets.

Evansville quickly proved me wrong.

Covering news in a smaller market is a tightrope walk. Unlike Chicago, where I was a small fish in a school of hundreds of reporters, now I’m one of very few. Even if I cover the mayor in the morning, I’m expected to smile and chat warmly if I see him in line at the grocery store after work.

And many stories I’ve written aren’t akin to that rosy prototype I mentioned earlier.

This is where SPJ has been a godsend. Conflicts of interest are inescapable in smaller towns, but the code of ethics has been my guide in sticky situations. I’m the only full-time reporter at my news station, so I simply can’t drop a story and pass it over to someone else. I have to do my due diligence, even if it means covering my friend, my doctor or the barista who pours my morning coffee.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges I face in a smaller market is the community expects that I be a champion of their town. I’m not sure if this is unique to Evansville (please chime in with your thoughts), but I often receive requests to “promote” an event or “highlight” a certain political figure.

This, of course, is not what I’m trained to do.

However, listeners have called or written to me questioning why I asked a local politician a tough question – or worse, claimed that I have a vendetta because I reported some unflattering, albeit true, information.

Sometimes I wish I had an SPJ guardian angel who could guide me through these times, but I trust in my heart that I’m doing my duty to elevate the cause of journalism in this town – where the two newspapers have now become one. And the commercial radio news station is now playing classic rock.

And, who’s to say that I’m not a “champion for Evansville”? I believe that journalism is tough love. We report truth because we aspire for better.

Not the “quaint,” “picturesque” ideal that has bored me to nausea.

Cass Herrington is the host of  WNIN’s All Things Considered and The Trend. Follow her on Twitter @CassHerrington.

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  • Aimee England

    In the words of a much loved local businessman in the small community in which I live (and cover) “In a small town there are no conflicts of interest.” Locally, the current city manager is the former secretary (when she as starting her career) of the man who now serves as the city attorney. His daughter is the head of the city recreation dept and also serves as the current acting city clerk. That’s small town politics in the rural Midwest. Living in a county of 43,000 and ‘city’ of just over 8,000, Evansville’s 200,000 seems metropolitan to me. I am asked to alter the jail reports because it’s someone’s relative, or often accused of being insensitive when posting photos of fatal accidents for a news report. Personally active in city politics, I was ranting about the current mayor’s lack of parliamentary procedure knowledge, and while spouting off to another friend, his wife was getting the car next to me. But small town journalists ARE champions of their communities- because they care for their community, exposing the bad things like city hall corruption, or local drug addiction, is just as meaningful as the ‘soft’ news- Boy Scout troop cleans up river, garden club gives beautification award. It’s because of all these, that small town and citizen journalists ARE champions of their communities.

  • Cass Herrington

    Thanks for your reply, @aimeeengland:disqus ! I’m comforted by your words — and I agree, Evansville is larger than most. Still, it was a real culture shock for me. I’m from Louisville, and started working in Chicago. I cover stories in Evansville’s surrounding rural towns, too — so I get a little bit of everything. Keep up the great work, champ!

  • j

    If you want to see some truth about small towns check this town meeting out. In it a young business owner is confronted by a group of older people trying to stop her proposal from getting to a vote. The arguments are astounding, and even more, the fact that they win. http://www.townhallstreams.com/locations/camden-me/events/21487/camden_town_hall

  • Bill McCloskey

    I am still undecided on the issue of board compression and would love to see more input from chapter representatives and RDs. It appears the chapter folks are mostly not interested. Paul’s blog, out there for almost a week now, has brought one comment. — a former RD who says “no.”

    As of now, I find this a “solution” in search of a problem. If the board is unwieldy it is because we get into too many weeds. Having fewer members won’t necessarily help that.

    I don’t see where a different split among folks working in newsrooms and those working in classrooms is important, we’re all journalists. (Yes, even the retired folks and the PR practitioners.)

    If budget money needs to be redistributed, we can do that. The only set of weeds the board doesn’t seem too interested in is the budget which if usually approved after a few perfunctory questions. We can move money even after the budget is approved – we just can’t spend any extra money.

    The issue I find most compelling that Michael raises as a part of his multi-faceted proposal is unleashing some money for chapter programing. His activities in that area seem to demonstrate that this is money well spent, although I have never seen any stats to tell us whether Free Food Festival participants, Scripps attendees, regional meeting attendees, contest entrants, EIJ participants or local board members (etc.) are more likely to renew. Clearly more dues income would allow more financial support for chapter programs, since we feel that strong chapter involvement does increase retention.

  • Like Bill, I’d like to hear more from chapters and RDs. Also like Bill, I wonder if it isn’t a solution in search of a problem. Is the size of the board a “real” problem or is it some other aspect of our organizational/governance structure that needs adjusting?

    I still think Michael’s proposal is exciting, long overdue and worth discussing, but is it the “right” proposal?

    I’m on another board (with 30 members!) that is considering “streamlining.” But a quick look at the board’s makeup reveals that many of those members represent specific constituencies, so reducing the size of the board won’t yield a much smaller outfit.

    And pardon my distrustfulness, but whenever I hear a politician talk about wanting to “streamline” something to “gain efficiencies,” I reflexively wonder what power play is under way and who stands to gain – financially and politically. Not that any of our esteemed board members should be equated with politicians.

    What I liked most in the email exchanges since this issue arose was Robert Leger’s suggestions, which I copied and pasted below (typos fixed).

    Robert:
    Start by agreeing why a smaller board is a good idea. Some of the reasons offered in this string miss the mark.

    Reducing the size of the board by three or four seats will not make it more nimble. The bylaws already create a mechanism for being nimble: the executive committee. For the past decade, a succession of boards has hamstrung exec and handcuffed the president. If you want to be nimble, free the executive committee to act as our founders intended. And let the president be the president.

    Nor does it make sense to argue for a reduction in the size of the board based on who has filed for what offices. Many years, we don’t have anyone running for sec-treasurer by the time of the spring meeting. Would you eliminate the office based on that? I hope not.

    There are good arguments for a smaller board. The financial one resonates.

    And here’s another question I hope you ask: Is Michael’s proposal radical enough?

    Does it make sense today to have a board based on geography? Follow Alex’s point — is this the map we would have if we were drawing it today? — to its logical next step: Is this the board makeup we would design today? If I were drawing the map for where the future is heading, I’d drastically reduce geographic representation and substantially increase knowledge representation, designating seats for communities, partner organizations (NAHJ, RTDNA, etc), or by expertise.

    Sonny again: This last suggestion of Robert’s resonates most with me. We ought to encourage our partner orgs to have representation on our board, along with representatives of communities. Geography’s still important, but I imagine less so than it once was.

    Regardless, I’m eager to see how the board digests all that’s been said and what it ends up doing.

    saa

  • McKenzie Romero

    As the president of the Utah Headliners chapter, I can’t speak as to what this proposed regional realignment might or might not do for the board, but I can say I that it would damage my chapter. I believe the proposed configuration would break up a strong working relationship and similar identity between Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. I also agree with Joel Campbell that the alignment would make it nigh impossible for our members, especially the students in our area, to attend regional conferences.

    While we could feasibly support some kind of regional change that wouldn’t damage these interests, we cannot support this one. I urge the board to oppose this proposal as it stands, or at a minimum, to delay this decision until the next national convention.

    Concerned,
    McKenzie Romero – Utah Headliners Chapter president
    Supporting board members: Joel Campbell, George Severson, Emma Penrod, Linda Peterson, Connie Coyne, Sheryl Worsley


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