Teri Orr: Small town news…
“We’re putting a damn paper out tomorrow.” Those were the words that showed up on Twitter from the crime scene that was also the newsroom last week.
And everyone who ever worked in a newsroom understood the pain and the passion in that short, declarative sentence.
Five journalists were murdered last week at their desks — except for Wendi — who reportedly charged the shooter in order to protect her fellow reporters.
The community paper in Annapolis, Maryland, can trace its roots back to 1727 — one of the oldest papers in the country. And it had been doing what community papers do — covering births and deaths and school events and meetings in city hall. Or as Jim DeButts, an editor there wrote —
“There are no 40-hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community,” DeButts wrote on Twitter. “We keep doing more with less. We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes, school budgets & local entertainment. We are there in times of tragedy. We do our best to share the stories of people, those who make our community better. Please understand, we do all this to serve our community.”
The community newspaper model has been dying for decades now all by itself. From mergers and acquisitions to failing circulations to online short flashes of updates that are mistaken for thoughtful coverage. But the occasional barbs of harsh words from disgruntled readers were really about as dangerous as a newsroom got. When we learned the shooter was someone who was “known to the staff” because he filed a suit against them — that was something all small papers understood as well. “He had a long-standing grudge against the paper.” Every community has one of those nuisance readers who feel wronged and they doggedly push the paper for corrections and retractions and a “redo” on stories. And some threaten something more. Maybe a lawsuit.
You just never think one will load up a shotgun and show up in your office to “even a score.”
My friend David, who is a techie guy and documentary filmmaker and who also produces an amazing TEDx event there, was the first I saw to post the story. It was his community paper. These were reporters he knew. It was devastating to consider. This wasn’t a paper of great swings to either side of the political spectrum. It was a small community paper, covering parts of a greater community the locals call Smalltimore.
The photos of the vigil showed average folks of a variety of ages carrying candles down a kinda Main Street USA past simple storefronts. Those photos showed the unity in community and a sadness born from knowing the victims personally. They had lost their friends in a senseless, all too American way — a man with a gun who opened fire with the intent of “killing every person.” According to a strange manifesto he left behind.
When I read the five obits the next day they could have been from so many small papers in any state. They were average people who loved journalism as it played out in community life. At least three of the writers were feature writers — a rare breed that exists still by the grace of a few benevolent publishers in the business. The luxury of telling stories about characters that live among us. About the new barber shop or the lady who always has the best flower garden. Or the young people who are working toward a scholarship in sports or band or stagecraft. Small stories not front-page headlines, but the kind of journalism that can elevate a cause or a human — either of which can need exposure to succeed. Feature writers are those who paint the essence of a community with word portraits to show us our neighbors and our neighborhoods.
John covered regional sports — the kinda beat that shines a light on young people who need that public place to validate the agony of victory of a regional playoff championship that might result in a scholarship that might help get a kid to college. But “he could write, he could edit, he could design — he was a jack of all trades,” a former colleague told the Baltimore Sun.
Wendi was a feature writer. One of her children told the Sun, “You could plan on her showing up late but with a great story to tell.”
The paper did get out the next day but the opinion page — where some of the deceased writers normally appeared — was blank. Save for the words — “We are speechless.” and the list of each of the names of those murdered.
This paper, here, has existed since 1880. It survived the fire of 1889 by putting the paper together in a tent and taking it to Salt Lake City to the Tribune offices to print for awhile. When the town nearly folded in the ’50s the paper nearly folded with it. When I came to Park City in 1979 the Park Record was an eight page tabloid size paper with three columnists anchoring the pages. It covered the city and the schools and the front page was a full page photo. Letters to the editor were an entire page. There were a handful of small ads — for the grocery, the bookstore, the mercantile. Everything was black and white.
There are still small towns across America where that kind of community journalism is the norm. My friend, Sena Taylor, is the publisher of an award-winning paper in Moab that has been in her family for over 100 years. Ed Abbey used to write letters to their editor.
There is nothing small about small town journalism. It is the fabric that dresses a community in joy and sorrow and hope and caution. What happened in Baltimore could have happened in any small town across America. And that should be enough to sadden us all this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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After a pipe burst in her home, followed by her furnace going out, columnist Teri Orr is grateful to be safe, warm and dry. And amid the global pandemic, she understands she is one of the lucky ones.