When I was a reporter with the now defunct Daily Californian in El Cajon, Calif., I had a couple of occasions to dig deep into our archives. I looked at many editions of the paper from the 30s through the 70s. It was a very different paper from the one I worked at.
I was proud of the paper I worked for. We had a great staff. We filled the paper every day with important news, or so we thought. We worked hard to be enterprising and hard hitting. We worked hard to get good clips that would impress future employers and win contests.
Those old papers were full of stories about people in the community doing ordinary things — running their businesses, giving and receiving awards, going off to serve in the military, getting married, etc. There was some hard news, mostly from wire services. The local political coverage — I specifically read some stories about the 1934 governor’s race — was chatty and informal and laden with opinion.
It wasn’t what we would call professional journalism.
In the midst of all my hard news reporting, I got an assignment to visit a lady’s home in Spring Valley. We had just been through a major rain storm and the hill behind her house was slowly sliding into her dining room. Very slowly. She was a Vietnamese immigrant, recently divorced, with three small children and her only asset was this house. I wrote the story.
It was the first story people ever stopped me in the street to ask me about. They wanted to know how the lady was doing, if the hill was still sliding, was anybody helping. The story generated phone calls. My sources from other beats asked about the lady. This simple story of a woman and her sliding hill was probably the best read thing I ever wrote.
So I did follow ups. Many of them. For two weeks, I wrote about the lady, her hill, and her attempts to get help from her insurance company. It was, as one reader put it, “better than watching a soap opera.” It was real life. It was about a neighbor.
The stories didn’t win me any awards (though I submitted them to a couple of contests), but it was a winner with readers.
I’m reminded of that story because of this post from Steve Yelvington about small town newspapers.
Mary Lou Montgomery, who edits the Morris-owned Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post, had an insight last year: In a misguided attempt to be “professional,” newspapers were losing touch with the kind of neighborhood news that people wanted. She wrote then:
We donâ€™t do dead deer.
We donâ€™t use Polaroid pictures
We donâ€™t print long lists of names, such as those attending a reunion.
There’s more to Mary Lou’s list of things we don’t do …
So Steve asked how her experiment in getting less professional and more local was going.
“Have you seen Jack lately?” she asked, referring to publisher Jack Whitaker. “He’s just a walkin’ grin!”
Circulation is up. Complaints are down. Relationships with people in the community are the best they’ve ever been. “A local gasoline distributor told me the newspaper is more fun to read now. A retired secretary said she feels like she has her paper back. When the weather was still warm, people were literally chasing me down the street to offer story ideas and to tell me they liked what we were doing.”
I told my story about what I learned from old newspaper archives to an API conference a few years ago and I put it like this: “We can do this stuff. We know how to cover our communities and connect with our readers. It’s in our DNA.”
Mary Lou Montgomery is proving it.