My interview at the Kalamazoo Gazette was terrifying. All the editors sat around a table and role played that a terrible thing had just occurred and a shell-shocked school bus driver was the sole witness. Twenty-year-old Emily, who had just finished her sophomore year at Western Michigan University, was supposed to play the role of the reporter arriving on scene. The editor-in-chief played the school bus driver.
Her: “It’s just so terrible, I don’t know if I can even tell you what happened.”
Me: “You can tell me. What happened?”
Her: “I don’t know. Is there some sort of law or something that will protect me?”
Me: “You can tell me. What happened?”
Her: “Again, is there some sort of law that says I can tell you what happened. A law that protects what I say?”
If you haven’t figured it out yet, and spoiler – I did not – it’s the First Amendment.
I was sure I did not get the job because who would give a job to a journalism student who couldn’t even sputter “Freedom of Speech!” But I did get the job! I worked first as an intern and then a reporter at a mid-size daily circulation community newspaper for only two years, but it left an outsize impact on me.
I eked a story out of a belly dancing class at a library attended by two people. I marveled at the gracefulness of a super light weight plane as I soared above corn fields on my third day at work, and wondered who would write my obituary if it went down. I attended a funeral and then spent a beautiful and painful day with the family of a little boy who had died suddenly at his middle school and I felt a little guilty that that my first A1 story was his obituary. I chased down a lead about a crazed bow-and-arrow hunter shooting neighborhood cats. I spent the day with a young couple (although they didn’t seem so young to me then) as they told me how a new ban on adoptions from Russia would have influenced their ability to have adopted their little bouncy-haired daughter. I was not too excited about being assigned to find love stories in every single readership region of the Kalamazoo Gazette to feature in a special section for Valentine’s Day. I spent an afternoon talking over gingersnap cookies with this one elderly couple, he a retired University of Michigan professor. The look in the wife’s eyes as her husband told me adamantly that his wife the reason for his success caused me to pull of the road in Three Rivers and just sob.
All those stories really stuck with me, but so did the people I worked with at that paper. The editors were all so smart and tough – the types of people you’d describe as “not suffering any fools.” I wanted so badly to please them. From gravely voiced editor at the City Desk who went by an abbreviation of his last name who called me “Walker,” to the photographers and photo editors who could make a gorgeous and compelling photo out of a gust of wind, I swear; the brainy and brusque editor who told me my story was a puzzle in a box because all the pieces were there they just weren’t in the right order; the beloved, folksy “Hometown” editor who, like the mother she is, was so happy for me when I got a job in Washington DC, even though it meant I’d be leaving Kalamazoo.
I did leave Kalamazoo and had several reporting jobs in Washington DC, which to a 22-, 23-, 24-year-old Emily seemed like more important work. It wasn’t.
I’ve thought about working at a local newspaper when I was in the halls of Congress crowded around an old and important man waiting like everyone else to jot down a few canned words and plop them in an article; when the newspaper industry started crumbling and the Kalamazoo Gazette laid off so many people and then moved out of its gorgeous downtown newsroom/printing press; when it felt like I was giving up reporting to move around the world with my diplomat husband; when our president calls these hardworking journalists “the enemy of the American people” even though the reason a free press exists in our country is to serve the American people.
I thought about it a lot this week when five staffers at the Capital Gazette were gunned down in their Annapolis, Maryland newsroom. I could picture what the newsroom looked liked moments before: photographers clicking through their images, phone calls being made, burnt coffee and old paper smell, because even though the newspaper industry has changed so much, I like to think every local newspaper newsroom is still exactly the same, and exactly the same as the one in which I worked. I’m so sorry that the Capital Gazette and the Annapolis community are suffering this tragedy and it moved me deeply to see those reporters putting out a paper the next day because that’s what they do.
Marc Fisher wrote in the Washington Post: “With five of his colleagues dead and two others wounded, Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital, felt compelled to offer a defense of the work his colleagues do. He begged people on Twitter to ‘stop asking for information/interviews. I’m in no position to speak, just know @capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community.'”
To community journalists, your stories are everything. You are doing such important work.
Em in Jerusalem
*Featured image by Susan Andress for Second Wave Media.