Life as a Reporter at Small Newspapers: “You Still Didn’t Get It Right”

In the wake of the five murders at the Annapolis Capital, there has been some reporting on what it’s like working at smaller local newspapers versus working at bigger papers like the Baltimore Sun, the Capital’s current owner, or the Washington Post.

Here’s a post about Barbara Holland’s life as a reporter at a weekly paper in Loudoun County, Virginia, also near Washington. While the Loudoun paper was smaller than the Annapolis Capital, the two papers shared an almost total focus on local news.
For readers of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other big city papers it’s ever harder to read about someone you actually know, or have seen in person. The obit sections of big newspapers seem—probably for reasons of digital traffic—increasingly about people of national and international renown.

As writer Barbara Holland put it in a 1999 Washingtonian article, “Serious newspapers are all about strangers. That’s how you can tell they’re serious.”

Along with writing occasionally for the Washingtonian, Barbara wrote books, taught at several colleges, including American University, and sometimes worked as a journalist to make ends meet. Here’s the opening of a story she wrote describing what it was like to work at a weekly newspaper in Loudoun County, Virginia.

“This is Barbara,” I say in my sweetest faux-Virginia voice. “How may I help you?”

“This is Alice Higby. You printed my daddy’s obituary like you said you would, and you still didn’t get it right.”

I remember her daddy’s obituary, nearly a full column long, retyped and rerun because I’d left out a surviving nephew who would be heartsick to find himself, as it were, disinherited. Now what?

“You put down ‘Joseph’ Ashburn for one of the pallbearers after I told you everyone called him Joe. We wanted the ‘Joe’ in there after the ‘Joseph’ so people would know who he was.”

“I’m sure they could figure it out,” I plead. “Lots of people named Joseph get called Joe.”

“Now, you listen. I have known that boy since he was a tiny baby, and nobody has ever called him Joseph because Joseph Ashburn in his uncle’s name. His uncle that owns the filling station, over on Route 50. People reading that obituary they’d think it was his uncle.”

Oh. Her daddy’s obituary is a killer typing job, with regiments of surviving step-nieces and grandchildren-in-law and enough pallbearers to tote a battleship—not to mention  all the high-minded piety about meeting in a better world that I’ve left out—but I am the lowliest person in the newspaper’s editorial department and this is my lot in life.

My dissatisfied customer sighs. “You going to be there all day? Because I’m coming to the paper myself. I want to see you get it right this time.”

Her daddy will not rest in peace until I get it right.

Obituaries in our pages certify the county’s dead and run free of charge. Nobody, however famous, can buy a mention here without county connections. Our readers recognize their dead, and their dead’s nephews, and the blurry snapshot of the deceased himself, posed behind a birthday cake or in front of a Christmas tree.

We who work here at the paper all live in the county, too, and someone at the next computer station is likely to say, “He was my high school math teacher” or “She used to wait tables at the diner.”

We are the newspaper of record here. A steady trickle of citizens comes in through the front door and down the hall past Classified and through Editorial, into the back room where the archives live, enormous bound volumes of broadsheet reaching back into the shadowy caverns of time.

In the back room, a citizen can spend a morning searching for a family farm that was sold by the bank in the 1930s, or a grandfather, looking 12 years old in a ridiculous haircut, off to war in the ’40s, or an aunt who terrorized the Garden Club in the ’50s, or the details in mother’s wedding gown and the full names of the bridesmaids and grooms and what they wore at the reception.

The volumes are heavy and the papers turning brown, but if the citizens perseveres, they will find what they want to know about themselves and their forebears and their world, including the day the butcher shop opened on Main Street and the day it closed down because of the supermarket coming.

It’s all in there, and so are they, and so are their high-school graduation pictures. The paper is the official guardian and verification of their lives. It is a responsibility.

Like God, the hometown weekly’s eye is on the sparrow; it’s got the little bitty babies in its hands; it files away their names. It follows the days of our lives.

When we see a familiar face in the supermarket, we can say, “I read about your boy winning the spelling bee—way to go,” and they can say, “I see your heading the village fair committee—sooner you than me.” This may seem trivial to those with more important things on their minds, but it makes us feel that we walk among friends.


  1. Mike Feinsilber says

    Nice posting about the life — and frustrations — of being a small town reporter. I always thought that being on a small newspaper is a lot tougher than writing impersonally about big shots and big issues.

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