Two years ago, sitting on a slightly lumpy bed in a medical hostel in Portland, I sent in a query for a job writing at my local paper. I had no experience in journalism and I was scared stiff of the prospect, but I also knew that I needed a job that would allow me to be a part of my community, and I figured it was worth a shot.
Before I began working as the sole journalist at the paper, regularly covering a dozen municipalities and nearly all of the unorganized territories in Maine’s north western mountains, I’d heard vague chatter about “the media” and how awful it is. There was plenty of chatter but no details; no specific examples or instances of what was so terrible. I’m still hearing a lot of that chatter, and still without specific examples.
I want to take a minute and share some of my own specific examples of what my life is like as a journalist. I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinion but if I’ve learned one thing in the last two years, it’s that information can lead to a greater understanding; there is value in understanding another perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.
I do understand that there are differences between myself and many other reporters and journalists, and I cannot speak for their experiences, but I can speak for mine.
I’m always “on duty”. When I want to take a vacation? I have to shut off my phone and leave the county. I wish I was exaggerating. I’ve tried to be deliberate in making connections and relationships, and I’ve tried to make myself accessible and available. Most of the time that works in my favor, even if it’s not related to work; when I take vacation time, it is often challenging to truly take time off if I’m still in my territory.
All the bad things you read in the news? I put them there. Sometimes I rewrite a press release from the sheriff’s office, but sometimes I’m building the story from the ground up with gathered information and conversations. Regardless of how I received the information, I have to be sure I’m understanding it thoroughly so that I can correctly communicate it to others. I have to do my research and know my topics before I can begin writing the story. Imagine that your homework assignment is to thoroughly evaluate, process, and understand all the available information about the death of a child you knew, and then figure out how to explain it. Imagine the toll that takes on you.
Sometimes people aren’t nice. I have been harassed, yelled at, threatened, mocked, and abused by people in my communities. I have had people come into my office and yell at me about how to do my job. I try to interact with everyone in a friendly, open manner, but that doesn’t always get reciprocated. Sometimes I can set it aside and not worry about it; sometimes I end up sitting in my truck in the driveway after work, crying because it’s all too much.
I get to see and hear and know about the worst of humanity, without the ability to do anything to help. This is a hard one for me sometimes because every fiber of my being wants to help, and most of the time there is absolutely nothing that I can do except stay out of the way.
I have to make it make sense. I have to write about the inexplicable and find a way to explain it. I have to turn chaos into a line of orderly words on the page. And I’m pretty damn good at it, but sometimes this is what it feels like for me:
As the only reporter at the office, I covered everything from festivals and celebrations to municipal meetings to school events to accidents and fatalities.
As a reporter I wear hundreds of hats and they’re all being juggled at once to make sure that everything gets covered. I’ve had to flip a switch from writing about a horrific snowmobile accident to writing about the kindergarten class having a play day at the sledding hill with no space to breathe in between.
I wanted to be accessible and available, and it worked. Sometimes I wonder if it worked a little too well. Folks have told me stories that can’t be told to anyone else. They feel better afterwards and I am glad that they feel safe enough to trust me with their stories, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have those images in my head.
I don’t even want to talk about COVID-19, because that would take up two or four more pages, but that is a massive piece of the puzzle too.
I love my job, and as a general rule I wouldn’t change a thing, but it is not an easy job. I care about my people far too much for this to ever be easy.
It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.
I get to go to the best places and meet the most interesting people and I have a whole book’s worth of my own stories that happened alongside my news articles. I get to be connected and engaged and part of these communities in a way that I haven’t been before, and it is so satisfying for me.
People have this fundamental desire to be connected with each other and to know what is going on, and meeting that need is one of the things I get to do.
I can understand, to a degree, the skepticism and mistrust of “the media”. I, too, struggle with vague and faceless entities that seem to have no connection with my world.
My advice, which may not be worth much, is twofold.
For those who are not in journalism, consider supporting your local media and avoiding national news for a few days. Local or even state media is more likely to provide you with connections, instead of just information. I think that a lot of the time we’re experiencing an information overload and that is hard to cope with.
Secondly, for my fellow journalists, I don’t know much about how you do this job, but I know that we are a part of this world and that we need to be connected and integrated. How can we expect to be successful, trusted, or respected if we treat ourselves like outsiders and like we don’t belong? These are our communities too.