Next year I will celebrate my 40th year in the newspaper industry, at least as a career. I was on the high school newspaper and helped out on the university newspaper when my schedule allowed but my first paying newspaper job was in 1976. It was a giant leap from my first job at a fast food chain to a small base civilian newspaper.
Somehow ink had gotten into my blood and I was hooked even more after beginning that first job. This week is the 75th year of National Newspaper Week. The theme is Power of the Press.
Ironically, I was just interviewed by a local journalism student about my career and thoughts on the job, about what I liked and disliked, awards, etc. This weekend I was also going through old newspaper columns trying to get together the best ones for a book. I have come a long way. In the beginning I was very long winded with my columns, but eventually I learned the skill of writing to space so my columns did not have to be continued. Every now and then I get wordy on a particular subject, but that is the exception rather than the rule. I can thank Robert Williams for harping on me about column length until it sunk into my skull. (Though this week that will not be the case because of my passion for journalism!)
I actually did a stint at a daily paper and I was not very happy. You only got to wear one hat at a time and the other departments did not like each other. I like wearing many different hats and I like to get along with everyone when possible, especially when I don’t have a reason not to like them other than they are in another department.
No week at a community (weekly) newspaper is ever the same. It keeps you on your toes and makes the job more enjoyable to have such variety. I have won different awards over the years, whenever I decided to submit something but was never really enamored with winning awards. Looking back they might have meant something to my children when I’m gone but my purpose was to make a difference and tell people’s stories. That was more important to me than winning awards.
Newspaper has certainly changed. I went kicking and screaming into pagination — laying pages out on the computer — but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, we are in the digital age. When I was in journalism school, everyone was bemoaning the fact that newspapers were on their way out. Here it is almost 40 years later for me and newspapers are still here. There is just something about holding a newspaper in your hand and seeing that photo in the local newspaper. We have had to make changes yes and for smaller papers like The Post and The Buzz, that is not easy on our budgets. And I am the only full time employee here.
Not every story is major, most of it is just routine like the government meetings but they are important as these entities spend taxpayer money. As a taxpayer I want to know where that money is going. It also keeps the public aware of how their local officials are performing in office.
Over the years as an employee of a newspaper, I have made a difference. We have helped to get SPLOST passed with editorials and in one community we uncovered a corrupt school superintendent who was eventually indicted and found guilty once our story hit the streets. In Hawkinsville, as part of the community image committee, I was part of getting decorative lighting downtown and a new sign for the historic opera house. I helped with the community mural project even though drawing was not my calling. There have been other instances over the years but I’m not one to keep count. It’s just something as a journalist, I do. We have cried foul when things weren’t quite right and the public has listened.
Just today a man was in our office, placing a classified ad and he noted how much he and his family enjoyed our newspaper. They moved here from another town and before moving here, they would buy the paper to see what was going on in the community. He commented that if not for the newspaper, he and his wife might not otherwise have attended some events.
We try very hard. We don’t fear local government or favor one over the other. We try to just report things as they happen with facts and not opinions. Sometimes officials and citizens, get confused about facts and opinions. When possible we double check facts and figures and sometimes, yes, we make mistakes. When we do, we apologize and try to make it right. We believe that problems should not be swept under a rug. When you shine a light on them, problems are more likely to get solved.
In my column I can state my opinion, in a news story I cannot. When covering a story, we try to see the bigger picture and sometimes because of the profession, we have facts or know behind the scenes information which we cannot share with the public for one reason or another.
Good people can make bad decisions as was the case with the school superintendent. Everyone thought he would never do something like that, but he did. Needless to say, the paper was not popular when the story first broke but after his conviction, people were even more enthusiastic about their newspaper.
I have always said that your friends and enemies change on a weekly basis depending on what’s in the newspaper that week. You see, in a small community, almost everyone is a “friend” in one way or another. Since we take our job seriously, we can’t show favoritism. While we don’t as a whole align ourselves with any political party, my column is a different story and I am allowed the luxury of my conservative views. Regardless, we believe that government should be responsible and conservative with the taxpayer’s money.
We don’t like having to cover the “bad” stories but it’s something we have to do to be fair. Not all news can be good all of the time. We love our communities that we serve. We participate in them when possible by serving on committees or participating in events, donating when possible.
Newspapers serve as the Fourth Estate of government and we try to hold them accountable to the people. That doesn’t mean we are an enemy of that government but rather a champion for the betterment of the community as a whole.
Even our forefathers saw the importance of newspapers. Thomas Jefferson once stated, “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
While there is some perceived power in the pen, it should never be abused. National news media with one-sided reporting and only reporting those things which get the most attention, has served to water down some of that power. But here in our communities we may not be like the local hardware store in many ways, but nonetheless we are committed to the community we serve.
News travels fast in a small town and sometimes that news turns out to just be rumor or innuendo. The newspaper helps separate the fact from fiction; and to try and turn apathy and ignorance into enthusiasm and facts. We don’t always get it right and some weeks we do better than others. But we keep trying and we appreciate your support for those efforts.
There are many challenges, different from in years past in today’s world of the community newspaper. One of the most frustrating is the post office and I do not have an answer to that question. Newspapers are delivered there the same time each week and are never delivered to homes the same day each week. We don’t like that fact either but so far there hasn’t been anything we can really do about it. So please forgive us for that fact. And when we make a mistake we want to know about it so we can correct it. When we’ve done something good, we like to hear about that as well.
VICTORIA SIMMONS is an author, columnist, motivational speaker, minister and publisher of The Georgia Post/Byron Buzz. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org