Small towns make for different news
I remember the specific moment in my journalism career when I sealed my future as a small-town newspaperman. I was at my third newspaper job out of college, had moved up to successively larger publications, and an offer came to take over the editor’s job at a small-town daily.
It would mean moving out of the Triangle area into a rural eastern North Carolina community. My wife, Lori, and I talked it over, and we decided to accept. At that time I knew it would be difficult to move back to a metro job at a larger daily, but something in the life of small towns appealed to us both.
That was nearly 16 years ago, and I’ve never regretted that decision. Last week, however, when we published a story about the Waynesville Rotary Club and the fallout over Jack Horton’s resignation as county manager, I certainly had the opportunity to ponder the unique difficulties in writing for and editing newspapers in a town where everyone knows everyone.
The story itself was not real important. Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley was among those supporting the forced resignation of Jack Horton as manager. Because of that and because of comments Ensley made to the media, some of Horton’s fellow Rotarians circulated an anonymous memo the next meeting seeking Ensley’s resignation.
As an elected official, Ensley made a decision about Horton that he had an obligation to explain to his constituents. That means using the press as a vehicle. He did just that. The Rotary memo, though, was circulated anonymously, meaning those who did it were able to keep hidden. It’s pretty clear who showed more integrity in this escapade.
That statement isn’t meant as a commentary on Horton’s forced resignation. Voters will have to decide whether that was justified, and they’ll have their chance soon enough. Horton had a long and distinguished career with Haywood County, but he also knew his job was completely dependant on the vagaries of politicians. That’s unfortunate, but it is a system that serves the taxpayers and the voters pretty well.
What’s worth reporting
I had one phone call and two comments from well-known people in Haywood County who questioned our decision to report on this incident at Rotary. Those comments are what sent me down the path of self-inquiry about being a journalist in a small town and what that means.
Although print journalists are obligated to strive for objectivity, here’s the reality: we show our opinions by what we choose to write about, how we place it in the paper, and what we choose to ignore or bury way back in the paper. In other words, readers know our feelings, and no matter how good an editor or reporter one may be, if readers pay attention they’ll be able to decipher political and personal leanings, which local leaders are treated better than others, which organizations are the favorites of reporters and editors. Our job is to strive always for objectivity, to put up a line of checks and balances for ourselves, but in the end I believe readers are a pretty smart bunch.
By the same token, political and community leaders in small towns face an added layer of scrutiny. Make a tough controversial political decision, like the one about Horton, and you’ll answer for it in church, in the checkout line at Ingles, at the PTO meeting and at Rotary. Small-town editors and reporters face the same scrutiny. If a New York Times reporter writes a controversial story, she may hear about from her sources or her editors. It’s not likely she’ll have to face down the politician’s wife when she goes to her child’s band concert at middle school.
This reality, however, cuts both ways. It also makes local leaders — and journalists — think especially hard about what they are doing. In a small town there is no place to hide. If you can’t live with your actions or your words, you won’t last long.
Truth versus what’s implied
Just last week another local newspaper editor explained, in very clear terms, why her newspaper had to quit running restaurant reviews. The reviewer was writing about the food, she wrote, but the readers took those comments as being about the people who owned the business. The pork chops may not have been very good, but saying that in print implied to readers that the owner of that restaurant wasn’t a good person. That’s a ridiculous connection, but it’s simply how small towns work.
There’s a fine line, sometimes, between being afraid to stand by a tough choice and standing strong for the decisions — right or wrong — you’ve made. That’s what made this little Rotary incident stand out, at least by my estimation. In this instance, those who produced this memo took the easy way out. Instead of making a public stand for what they believed, it was obscured in anonymity, and therefore it lost credibility.
This choice that we all make is also why this country has a long-standing and deserved love affair with the character that is associated with people raised in small towns throughout rural America. That decision to speak in public about what one believes is sometimes takes something special. That’s why those who decide to take leadership positions or run for office at the local level are often very special people. There’s no hiding from your opinions and decisions.