The Absurdity and Joy of Being a Local Newspaper Reporter
CareerCast just released its annual list of “the worst jobs in America,” and for the fourth year running, newspaper reporter came out on top.
The rankings take into account “hiring outlook, income, stress, and environment.” Newspaper reporters apparently face a bleak future as online media replaces print papers, fake news is more interesting than real news, and the population becomes increasingly illiterate (the latter is based on this writer’s first-hand observations).
Still, as an on-again, off-again newspaper reporter myself, I would like to set the record straight: newspaper reporting is the best. I was born to be a small-town journalist (a fact I can’t seem to reconcile with my preference for top-shelf gin and need to drive turbo-charged cars), and though it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, newspaper reporting has been some of the funnest, funniest, most interesting, enlightening, and rewarding work I’ve ever done.
My first job out of college was at a daily newspaper in a small Pennsylvania town. Never in my life have I been so confused and learned so much.
I started as an intern at my hometown paper, and at one point was somehow interning at three small papers in three different towns simultaneously (they were all owned by the same parent company). So much for reporters’ job prospects being “weak”—these people are desperate!
I remember my first assignment like it was yesterday. I was told to conduct “Man on the Street” interviews, asking locals what sorts of businesses they’d like to see come to town. A softball assignment, thought I.
I only needed five interviews with accompanying photos. The photos were the hard part. One man obliged my interrogation, but when it came time to snap his picture, he exclaimed, “I can’t have my picture took!” and darted away to who-knows-where.
This initial assignment took me two hours. Two hours to get five people to give me a single-word response to a non-controversial question. And did I mention it was January and I couldn’t feel my hands? My fervency for hard-hitting, life-changing journalism cooled significantly that day.
Once I landed my “big break” as a full-time reporter at the daily, it was my job to cover the weekly county commissioners meetings. The courthouse was where my passion for limited government, rooted in me since childhood, really took hold and blossomed, under the cultivation of a fat government employee who thought he was Santa Claus.
Not only was this man rotund with snow-white hair and beard, but his job as “grant administrator” or some such was literally gift-giving. I’d sit there and take notes as he nonchalantly rattled on about a grant proposal to use half-a-million in tax dollars to fix some little bridge in some township the people who gave up their half-million dollars would never use. The commissioners would look to one another, nod agreeably, and vote away money on “community development projects” with a single, blasé “yea” week after week.
Grants were a common theme in my early reporting duties. Everyone got them. The hospital, the schools, the library, the local rotary club, an older couple who decided to buy a historical fixer-upper of an old ramshackle building to remodel in their retirement years—you name it. If this much money was being flitted away in such a tiny town, how much was being wasted in places with more sizable populations? I shuddered to think.
The township meetings I had to cover, in contrast to the dry county ones, almost made government seem exciting. Almost. Colorful characters would express their outrage—most of it not fit to print—about various issues I didn’t understand during the public comment period. I’d scribble notes (and lots of question marks) as elected officials debated the value of re-routing the drainage system “down by where Rusty Dunbar’s old house used ta be,” and talked about how to stop kids from playing in the field “where you go down back when Russell’s corn’s on.” I was berated once by one of the township supervisors—quite harshly, I might add—for my inadvertent misidentification of what location was meant by “up at Gary’s.”
This particular newspaper published (and still does) a weekly feature so bizarre and entertaining that the Wall Street Journal wrote about it a few years ago when the “Opinion Line” was in danger of going extinct. This salacious section contains anonymous comments from readers on every topic under the sun (and I mean every topic). The reporters were sometimes tasked with typing out the messages left on the machine, using a foot pedal transcriber. One day, it was my turn, and this is what I heard:
“I have a live hornets’ nest in my backyard. If anyone wants it, call…”
“You should be able to buy anything you need with food stamps, including cigarettes.”
“The only way people around this area will support gay marriage is if Jeff Gordon would marry Tony Stewart.”
“In my opinion, Froggy is the worst radio station on the air. I used to listen to it all the time, now the only time I listen is to hear the pledge of allegiance and birthdays. Otherwise, I do not like it. I don’t know where they are getting those songs.”
“I don’t know why they make such a big deal about snow in April. At the end of April 1928, we had the biggest bush-bender you ever wanted to see.”
“This is to the person on Cold Springs Road who owns the orange cat. Its collar is too tight.”
“When are Mount Union Little League parents going to wake up and realize the president and vice president are in cahoots to raise money for themselves?”
“I think I’m going to send my AR-15 back to the manufacturer. It must be defective, because it won’t do anything on its own like the ones I keep hearing about on the news.”
“People who work at restaurants shouldn’t cough into the food.”
I moved on from rural Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. several years back, and after a couple corrosive years in the swamp, retreated to my role as small-town newspaper reporter, this time in Idaho, with renewed appreciation. My goal was to move somewhere I wouldn’t have to parallel park; I ended up at a place where one refers to the stoplight in town.
An older woman riding a horse bareback trotted by my window on my first day. No one in the newsroom looked up, but my fellow reporter informed me she mounts up when she’s drunk (safety first, I guess?). It wasn’t even noon.
It was fall and the number of old mills and farmhouses makes the area ripe for haunted houses come Halloween time. I was new to town, and it was (correctly) assumed I wouldn’t have Friday night plans. “Go to the haunted house and write a review of it for the arts and entertainment section,” my editor said.
I went to the haunted house alone. It was a Friday night, rainy and foggy, and yes, I got lost on my way down an old dirt road and almost ran out of gas. I eventually found myself navigating through a creepy maze of “The Haunted Mill.” A zombie jumped out at me, as they do, then paused, removed his mask, and asked with concern, “Wait, are you here alone?!” We then proceeded to have a pleasant chat about his zombie career and the outlook for haunted house season that year.
Newspaper reporting can be awkward and lonely when you’re forced to go to events solo (like the Pocono 500, for instance), or to write about the “most adorable pet” winner only to find out midway through the interview the owner’s pet has since died. But it’s also the best way to get to know a new place and community. There’s nothing like cold-calling strangers and demanding they answer a bunch of questions to fast-track your way to becoming a local.
I’ve made many friends (and two ex-boyfriends) through my newspaper reporting jobs. I once had to find out why an Amishman was auctioning off all his farm equipment and livestock. I couldn’t call him (no electricity), and I was leery to wander onto his property unannounced (the Amish are famously private folk). So I wrote him a letter, he wrote back, and I wrote an article based on our correspondence. I still treasure that letter and its archaic spellings.
I got to do a ride-along with the local county sheriff in Idaho, and we’ve been friends ever since. I interviewed a legendary rodeo announcer and was hence always welcome to “Cow Camp” for a Coors and a chat on the porch. I got to cover “skijoring” and the world’s largest ski lesson and become a Guinness Book of World Records holder myself (though not a very impressive one) in the process. I got to know the produce manager of the grocery store, who played the lead in the town production of “A Christmas Carol” every year, and whose burgeoning, George C. Scott-esque mutton chops alert townsfolk every November what season is fast approaching.
Newspaper reporting is not all restaurant openings and free passes to concerts, mind you. Some days you’ll be at a meeting and look down at a handout and realize you’re going to be hearing about “sewer fee analysis” for the next two hours. Or it’s a slow week and your editor asks you to string together 400 words on “Why ice cream is a popular summertime treat” (actual title of an article I once wrote). You might call a basketball coach who’s a contractor by day, and he may conduct your interview while using a nail gun. And that same coach might answer all your questions with “good,” it’s good,” “the team is good,” “I think the game is going to be good.”
But you learn a lot as a reporter—about life, people, the ways and whys of how things work and don’t work. Sure, you’ll be poor. I used a pillowcase as an oven mitt and had only a single dish and fork and mug when I arrived to Idaho. I bought my kitchen items from the thrift store, which I thought was gross, until I remembered I eat in restaurants. But what you lack in material goods (and food), you make up for in knowledge and rich experiences. You become a mini-expert on every topic you write about, whether that be high school boys’ wrestling or the differing de-icing practices of the Idaho and Wyoming Departments of Transportation (sometimes you learn too much).
There’s never a dull day as a newspaper reporter. The job offers variety and adventure, along with the stress and frustration that comes with any career. As to the future: will newspapers disappear? Eventually, I suppose, but for now people value the news they can only get locally. You can find out what Trump’s up to on a thousand websites and on a dozen TV channels, but where else can you learn about the potato truck that backed up traffic when it spilled its spuds, or see your grandchild’s picture featured as “Athlete of the Week”?
Newspaper reporters may be a dying breed, but I plan to go down with them, doing what I love, with a pen in my hand and a healthy appreciation for the absurd up my sleeve.
Teresa Mull is a writer living in Teton Valley, Idaho.