I’ve found myself this week telling several people about one of the most enlightening experiences of my fellowship, and I realized I hadn’t yet written about it.
I spent a day in the fall with Dave Marner, managing editor at the Gasconade County Republican, a weekly newspaper south and east of Missouri’s capital.
I’ve never worked for a community newspaper, and I went to see Dave because I wanted a crash course in the role a paper can play in a small town. Dave gave me that and much more, and I’ve found myself turning to him since our visit to give me a dose of reality.
Here are the highlights of what I learned during my day with Dave:
— The only business in Owensville, Mo., that’s older that the newspaper is the post office.
— Dave knows most of the town, and they certainly know him. He’s been at the paper almost 19 years. When people in Owensville think of the newspaper, they have a real face to attach to it. An example: Dave and I showed up a public school. It was a slow day, and we were looking for something to shoot photos of. The women in the school’s office started brainstorming ideas with him about where there’d be something interesting to shoot. It was red ribbon week, and they were asking each other who was putting up decorations, and where there’d be some action. Turns out one of the women was the principal of the school, and she and Dave chatted about their kids. There were no concerns about whether he had a right to be there, or whether the kids could get their pictures taken. Just a collective effort to find some photos.
— Dave spoke with pride about his town. He showed me the new elementary school, which he was on a committee to help build. He told me about some of his experiences serving on the park board. He drove me by his house. It felt to me (though I haven’t asked him this question specifically) that he identified himself as a community member first, and a journalist after.
— Dave says his job is to fill scrapbooks. He’s spent 18 years filling the community’s scrapbooks. He sent me an email after our visit about how his daughter’s high school math classroom had his photos all over the walls. He records the town, and he helps individual people preserve their experiences. He and the paper are relied on for that.
— We ate lunch at Bogey’s Sports Bar, and the guy sitting next to me at the bar turned out to be a former longtime editor of the newspaper, Bob McKee. He and his wife told story after story about the town, the paper and their shared history. I’m fairly sure Dave knew everyone else in the room, too, though I didn’t ask. I was introduced to a couple others, and we had fun with the folks behind the bar. Dave doesn’t have to go find the real people in his community to talk to. Heck, he couldn’t escape them if he tried.
— Which all leads me to my main revelation: As journalists, we talk about community engagement only if we don’t have it. Dave spoke eloquently about his job and his community all day, but when I threw that word in there, it was clear it wasn’t one he used. He has no need for it. He’s living it.
The rest of us are hoping and striving for the kind of relationship that Dave, and community newspaper editors all over, naturally have with their communities.
I’m talking this afternoon, along with Jen Reeves, to editors in town as part of a Missouri Press Association event here at RJI. Jen and I are going to toss out some ideas for how these papers can continue to foster their relationships with their communities, as the news consumption habits of the town’s grandchildren evolve.
But from where I sit, what they have looks pretty darn good. I hope I can one day say I work for a news organization that is as closely tied to its community.
This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.