“[I] discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it ….
— Novelist William Faulkner
What makes a good newspaper? That’s a complicated and subjective question, one that an increasing number of people don’t care much about as they switch to digital sources for their news. But one trait, it seems to me, remains important for news sources no matter whether it’s online or in print: the sense of place.
When you are surrounded by writers, editors, designers and computer geeks — and yes, sales people and administrative types —who like working in a creative and dynamic setting, advice is never in short supply. In an idea business, everyone has plenty to say about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what needs to happen and how someone else screwed up. The trick is to get good at latching on to those ideas that work and let others fall by the wayside.
My former publisher at The Mountaineer had one of those axioms that I grabbed hold of and still value. He used to tell me that people in this mountain region are fiercely proud of their culture, perhaps more so than in any place he had lived. He said it was the newspaper’s job to reflect and embrace that truth.
I’m paraphrasing, but the challenge went something like this: you should be able to obliterate the name of the paper and the city in which it is published from the masthead, and still know from reading the stories that you are in the Smoky Mountain region. In today’s world, that would also mean you should be able to happen upon our website and have the same thing happen.
That’s more difficult than you might imagine. In covering politics or county board meetings, courts, law enforcement, and education, stories have similar content no matter whether you are in Montana, Maine or Florida. The stories that reflect the history, culture and values of a region are usually more difficult to find and to write. It’s relatively easy to go to a county board meeting and regurgitate what happened, but much more time-consuming and intellectually challenging for reporters to interview a local personality and turn that into a readable story that reflects the sense of place to which I’ve been referring.
It was last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News that drove this point home. Every now and then you get it right, and even less often do you hit a home run. If there was a press award for capturing a sense of place, last week’s paper would have won first place. Our editors, reporters, designers and everyone else involved in the production of the paper got it right.
Here’s a list of some of the stories that made it into last week’s paper: Caitlin Bowling’s cover story about Bob Plott’s family and the Plott hound breed (the state dog), and the publication of his new book called Colorful Characters of the Smoky Mountains; guest columnist Brent Martin’s opinion piece about bills before Congress that would threaten protection of valuable natural resources; Quintin Ellison’s feature on Anne Lough, a prominent traditional musician who led a shape-note singing program at Lake Junaluska; and another story by Caitlin marking the 10th anniversary of the Balsam Mountain Trust, which puts on educational programs and runs a nature center in the upscale Balsam Mountain Preserve development.
Add to that list of quality stories about the Smoky Mountains the regular, weekly contributions of columnist Quintin Ellison, book reviewer and columnist Gary Carden, naturalist Don Hendershot and Back Then contributor George Ellison.
With the digital age of news upon us, the scope of place that large news outlets cover has never been larger. Newspapers like the N.Y. Times and USA Today, along with national or international websites, are vital to our knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.
But small, regional outlets like The Smoky Mountain News still take great satisfaction in putting out a product that illuminates that little “postage stamp” that Faulkner so ably describes. And every now and then we do it pretty damn well.