Business Casual: The Dead Reptile Beat

At my first real newspaper job, on a small Louisiana weekly, as the rookie reporter and the only “girl” in the newsroom, I was given a Polaroid camera and assigned the important task of photographing the weird and wonderful things that people brought by the office to share with our readers.

In the summer, this was likely to be rattlesnakes that had been killed on the road or oversized and oddly-shaped vegetables from someone’s garden. In the fall, hunters would drive into our parking lot with dead deer in the back of their trucks.

I would dutifully take the pictures, write the captions and make sure we used the photos in an upcoming edition.

This, I was given to understand, was an important part of community journalism. People liked to read about their friends and neighbors.

Our community, across the river from New Orleans, was covered sporadically by the two big city dailies. But, incredibly, they often missed out on the dead reptile and weird vegetable stories – choosing instead to go after the “easier” stories about government and crime.

Nor did they devote much space to high school sports or local social doings. So we made sure to run team photos, news of garden club meetings and lengthy wedding stories.

If it wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I was listening to my journalism professors at UGA, I came to understand that it was important to the readers and that it had better be important to me.

It mattered whether the kid in the second row of the photo was an outfielder or a second baseman and whether his name was James or John; it mattered whether the bridal gown was peau de soie or organza, and whether the garden club program started at 7:00 or 7:30.

For the most part, it was all great fun. But my stint at this particular newspaper coincided with the Vietnam War; and there seemed to be an endless supply of recent graduates from the local high school who enlisted or got drafted and found themselves in combat thousands of miles from home. I wrote some of their obituaries.

One mother came in with a photo of her son, who had been killed just days before, and brought the last letter he wrote, which had arrived after his death. She read the letter aloud and asked if I would be sure to include in the story the fact that he had been an altar boy. Once she left, I went into the ladies’ room and cried before I started the story.

I also wrote about the apparently random murder of young teenager, whose girlfriend was the daughter of a woman in our office. The boy’s mother wanted to talk, believing that publicity would help find the killer. I begged not to have to be the one to interview her, but my editor pointed out that I was the logical choice and grudgingly added that I’d do a better job than any of the guys.

Another time the paper sent me to cover the story of a little boy who had a congenital heart condition and was to undergo surgery paid for by donations from neighbors and proceeds from fund-raisers in the community. That one had a happier ending; the surgery was a success.

Newspapers – the big dailies and the little weeklies like the one I worked for – have changed a lot since my early years on the job. Most of them are struggling, and there is, among journalists, a lot of speculation about what’s going to happen to our profession. I wish I had all the answers.

Yet in whatever form, I think community news will continue to be important to people – but with many different definitions of community, not necessarily dictated by geography. Some of the bloggers and the Facebook posters and the Twitterers are figuring this out.

I worry, as many of my colleagues do, about the demise of real “shoe-leather” reporting and the proliferation of unsubstantiated, ungrammatical ranting masquerading as serious commentary. But I’m optimistic enough to think that readers – or consumers – will come to demand accurate, reliable information, and that they will require more of the new media practitioners. And that it will always matter whether it’s James or John or whether the meeting starts at 7:00.

I’m just not sure it will be as much fun as it used to be.



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