Good small-town journalism -- the toughest kind
Part two: There's no such thing as anonymity
Part one, "Remembering The Register," tried to conjure what it was like to be a cub reporter in the 1970s for a great small-town newspaper — that stopped publishing a few weeks ago, after printing since 1836.
Writing that still makes me groan.
That first part was more about the amazing, arcane process we went through just to get into print. But the requirements of reporting itself, gathering shards and threads of info and opinion that became “news,” now seems just as anachronistic and impossible.
No cell phone, no answering machine; unless you were sitting at your desk you had no idea someone was trying to call you, or ever had. No email of course, and “fax” meant nothing but bad spelling. Speaking of facts, there was no Internet to check them. Get it right in the notebook, or get it wrong.
Yet we managed to turn out substantial print newspapers week after week after week. And a piece of wisdom offered by a big-city editor who took a big chance on me years later still rings true:
To be a good small-town reporter is far harder than being a good big-city reporter, because in a small town, you face the people you write about every day. There is no anonymity. And that can make things very tough if you’re required to ask hard questions and write hard stories.
“G’morning, Mary,” the first call of the day might begin, “it’s Seth over at The Register. How are you today? …
“Dammit, how’d I spell it? …
“Oh hell, so it’s Klein, not Kline? …
“Ouch. Kind of a dumb mistake, given my last name, right? …
“Yeah, I guess most mistakes are kindah dumb when you get down to it. I’ll apologize to her. So is the town accountant in? This is the fourth time I’ve tried to reach her …
“I’d rather let her know directly, but seeing as she’s not calling back I’ll say I’m wondering if it’s true that the tax bills are three months late …
“I don’t think it matters who told me, what matters is if it’s true or not …
“I’ll give the town manager a call, I wanted to give her first shot but …
“Thank you. Oh, by the way, did you really put a chain and padlock around the filing cabinet with the subdivision plans in it because I was nosing around? …
“Wow, that’s gonna make a great photo! Thanks!”
A thudding came up the stairs; didn’t sound friendly. A large body filled the frame, jeans low not like gangstah kids did it years later but like big guys with bellies have done it forever.
“Hi Pete,” I said.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asked, sitting down beside my desk and without waiting for an answer lighting a cigarette.
“I don’t think we have any ashtrays.” That was a lie, my fellow reporter John smoked.
Pete blew out the match and kicked one ankle up over the other knee, revealing loafers that had a hole where the stitching had let go. He tucked the match in there, letting it slip under his bare foot.
“So you think I don’t have a right to build on my own property?” he demanded.
“No one said that, at least I didn’t write that.”
“You might as well have.”
“You want to go over the article line by line, show me something that isn’t true? I guarantee you Dana will print a correction.”
“On page 22? Buried under the school lunch menu?”
“Depends on how serious it is, up to him.”
“I don’t feel like doing that.”
“Then what do you want me to say? Show me I reported something wrong and I’ll correct it, otherwise, what?”
“Here’s the point,” he said, blowing smoke to the ceiling. “The whole idea of that article is I’m doing something selfish and evil, subdividing that property. The whole point of writing it is to put me in the limelight, make it tougher for me.”
There was truth there, but I didn’t want to concede that.
“You may not like it,” I countered, “but when people in town hall are making decisions, the public has a right to know -- in advance. You want the planning board to wave a wand over anything you want to do. That doesn’t work anymore, you know why? Because the very same people you’re selling homes to don’t want it that way. They got money and time and for some strange reason think they have a right to be part of what’s going on in their new hometown. When you sold to them and took their money you forgot to tell them they didn’t.”
“I’ll grant there’s some irony there,” he said, flicking ash into his shoe. “And I also get that they’re the ones subscribing to your highbrow paper and paying the bills, not me.” He stood up. “We got different ideas about what’s good for this place. Mine includes what’s good for me, straight out, but not only that. You want this place to be all woods and animals and beaches and a few old homes nobody can afford. You wanna close the bridges, just so long as you got here in time.”
“Build affordable houses, Pete, and sell’em to the likes of me making $130 a week instead of the highest bidder from Connecticut.”
“If I had my way I’d do both,” he said, “so long as there was money in both. Go tell the town to sponsor some housing, I guarantee you I’ll build it as good as any millionaire would want.” He filled the doorframe again, not turning back. “And say hi to Ruth for me. If she wasn’t around I’d probably kick your ass.”
“Sponsor housing?” I muttered, too low for him to hear. “And you’ll vote to raise your own taxes to do it, right?”
I said it under my breath not because I was afraid he’d kick my ass, more because I was trying to grow up and not always need to have the last word.
Besides, push to shove, we got it every time the presses thunked.
NEXT: ROAMING AROUND THE CAPE’S BEST BIGGEST COOLEST PUBLIC LAND PURCHASE IN A GENERATION.
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