By Samantha Perry
Editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When asked to speak at the Bluefield College Media Appreciation Day luncheon last month, it took a little time to come up with a topic. I am passionate about the news business, and enjoy sharing details about many different aspects of the industry.
However, headlines in recent weeks — and recollections of those from past years — brought my topic into focus. Here at the Daily Telegraph, most of us are in this business because we truly love covering the stories that develop in the southern West Virginia-Southwest Virginia region. It gives us a great sense of pride to share what is going on in the community with our readers.
In the media profession a common goal is to move up — move up to a bigger viewership, a bigger readership, a bigger market. Success equates to making your name in a metro area, large state or — at the top of the chart — a national audience.
Write for the New York Times, they say, become an anchor on CNN or FOX. These are lofty and admirable goals, and those who achieve them deserve the resulting kudos.
But my message to the attendees at the media event last Thursday was to consider the rewards of community journalism.
So what is important small-town news in a market of this size?
• It’s the fender-bender at a highly traveled intersection — a story that is not so much about the crash, but the fact that the state won’t install a turn arrow on the traffic light.
• It’s the new display at the Holiday of Lights that honors the late Bluefield Police Lt. Aaron Crook — a true local hero whose life was cut short due to a tragic accident.
• It’s a story about a magistrate having dalliances with women appearing before him in court — a magistrate who, after an investigation, is forced to resign and later called an “embarrassment to the robe” by the state’s highest court.
• It’s Mud Pig Day — a awesome event thrown by Bluefield College to give students a chance to have fun and unwind.
• It’s a mobile meth lab bust — not in an RV, but an arrest of a guy on a bicycle with the meth lab in his backpack.
• And it’s many, many other things — Bible In the Schools, county budget cuts, a fabric store closing, police dog funding, sheriff deputy layoffs, Rent-A-Center drug busts and the tale of a young boy who got locked in a gun safe at our local Rural King.
It was nice to see so many members of the Shott family in attendance at the luncheon. As one-time owners of the city’s newspaper, television station and radio station, they were, in a sense, the founding family of journalism in southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
In an iconic and legendary way, they brought the news of the day to the coalfields, which opened up knowledge and communication to the those in the region. Rich or poor — shop owner or underground miner — residents were kept abreast of national politics, international strife and crime close to home thanks to their due diligence in journalism’s infancy stage.
In a sense, they were early pioneers of community journalism.
So what does it means to pursue your passion in a small town? First of all, it must be your passion. Those who want 9 to 5, a lunch break at noon, all holidays off and a quiet cellphone while off the clock would probably not be happy in journalism.
But if you get an adrenaline rush at the sound of “Shots fired!”, if you have a desire to chase ambulances like a dog chases tennis balls, if you smile at the sight of crime scene tape, if you are willing to walk a half-mile to an accident scene in high heels, and if chasing stories gets you motivated, your blood pumping and makes you want to share the news, inform the public and right the wrongs of the world with the stroke of a pen or the broadcast of a video, then this might be a career for you.
Community journalism also means there is no shield of anonymity due to a huge population base You will run in to sources in the produce department of the local supermarket, while in the stands cheering at a Little League game and as you attempt to shop at the make-up counter at Belk.
The point is that you are up-close and personal with readers and viewers. They know you and like you — or maybe hate you — depending on the stories of the day or week.
And they will give you their opinion. It may be a kind one accentuated with smiles, and wrapped up in southern sweetness dripping with words like “Sweetheart” and “Honey.”
Or it may go the other way. They may yell and curse you, and call you names that you have never before heard.
As a journalist, you must let the bad wash off your back and continue the quest to report on good things and great things — and sometimes bad things. You must take a deep breath and know that — positive or negative — your role is to be a mirror of the community.
My final advice to newcomers coming up in the journalism profession?
Listen to your heart, and connect with readers and viewers on an intimate level. Always judge with integrity, while keeping an eye to the heart and soul of a story.
Small towns are different from big cities, but stories are still covered passionately, accurately and fairly. Big market or small, be kind to those who come to you to get the news.
And whether your market is one million or one thousand, you have the power to make a difference.
Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her @BDTPerry.