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.

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