Over the past few months, I’ve had the honor of having this column picked up by the newspaper here in Somerset.
While this has been a thrill in and of itself, it’s been enhanced by the people — friends, neighbors, acquaintances, people whom I’ve never met but who work with my husband — who have texted or stopped to tell me they’ve enjoyed reading about my tiny escapades.
It’s reminded me of what a great joy it is to be published in a place where I live. And with everyone reading the same thing, it’s also reminded me of how much a local newspaper ties a community together.
I felt this very keenly when I was a reporter at The Sentinel-Echo. I still remember my first day walking into that newsroom. The venerable Sue Minton, who was the features editor for more than four decades, was holding a picture of a giant egg. The farmer had sent it in to be published in the features section, and Sue and Joe Dill, the editor, were talking about the fact that they’d never seen an egg so big.
Then Joe, who was a city boy from Wisconsin, asked Sue what she thought had happened to the chicken. Exasperated by his stupidity, Sue’s face contorted in five different directions at once.
“Well, chicken died, Joe!” she said. “Chicken died.”
I’ve told that story before and I’m sorry some of you are reading it again. But it was such an important moment for me. It was the perfect symbol of what a local newspaper can be for a community, and it’s what kicked off years in which I was able to gain a footing on my new Kentucky life and learn about the power of journalism.
Along the way, I got to know a community, one in which the lead detectives were identical twins, the judge-executive (a Democrat!) had an affection for seafoam green blazers, where the biggest lawyer in town had a swanky apartment above his law office and a Victorian clock in front of it. In the fall, all things chicken were feted with gusto. At the beginning of December, Christmas carols started playing all day, every day over speakers positioned downtown. And at any time of the year, you could smell yeast and sugar floating from the 90-year-old factory where they bake the country’s honey buns.
But as I learned about what the newspaper was giving to me, I was often amazed by what the newspaper staff worked to provide for the community. Paid (almost literally) peanuts, reporters raced around day and night chasing down everything from tornados to politicians. They documented your stories. Your crime. Your politics. Your education. Your wins. Your losses. Your births. Your deaths. And the bake sales you had in between.
Most importantly, in the most earnest way, in an often thankless job, they documented.
And if it’s done right, that documentation produces an indelible mirror for a community, one that reflects everything a community is made of. So that you’re not just holding “the paper.” You’re holding a testament that says, “We are here. And this is what we look like.”
Of course, a newspaper is never beloved. As longtime Kentucky newspaperman John Nelson said often to his daughter Julie, who has told it to me: “If you haven’t made ’em mad, you haven’t done your job.”
Resentment toward a newspaper is built into the foundations of its readership. I suppose it’s because a good newspaper (and editor) is unrelenting. Not there to be manipulated or to compromise. The point is, always, to reflect, not comment.
It’s hard to believe in that, I grant you. Even seems like it must be unattainable, which can create disdain and suspicion within a readership. But it’s also what gives a newspaper its value. The goal is to be true. That is what you won’t find on social media or blogs. And that is the reason why still, to this day, people, when authenticating a story they’re telling their friends, will say, “It was in the paper.”
Last month, The Sentinel-Echo in London and The Times Tribune in Corbin both left their downtown homes and will reside together in a printing warehouse off the beaten path. They will not be printed as often as they once were. As such, they cannot tie their communities together as tightly as they once could.
That’s an enormous loss.
Because, as I said, to be part of a newspaper, to be part of the reflection, is a tremendous honor. And one that its readership should feel compelled to preserve.