Small-Town Newspapers Produce Seasoned Reporters

I’m pleased to welcome Gerry Charbonneau, the second guest in in my new Something in Common feature. Gerry has “something in common” with Kris Langley, heroine of my mystery novel Twenty-Five Years Ago Today. Kris is an obit writer, editorial assistant and freelance writer for a fictional community newspaper called The Fremont Daily News. In the book, the newspaper is independently-owned and the two editors frequently clash: one is a news veteran set in his ways and the other is like Corporate Barbie, bent on changing everything.

Gerry also has experience working for a small, independently owned community newspaper and he has agreed to give us the inside scoop on what it was like. Gerry recently retired from the active work force after 30 years of employment. His career as a journalist was short-lived due to a vision problem in his left eye and other work-related health issues. His current online project, Nibbled News, offers readers informative, useful and thought-provoking articles about people, places and events in the news today.

GERRY: Back in the day, after I had graduated journalism school, my first official exposure to professional newspaper life in my new found status involved my being eventually hired as the editor/reporter/photographer for a family-owned community newspaper. In this case, the family owned two fair sized and profitable weekly publications.

I initially thought that I had lost the all important lottery of life. A number of my fellow students had secured positions with larger, well known daily newspapers. I dreaded the thought that my hard work and studies at school had landed me a second rate newspaper position.

Eventually, however, I realized that this inaugural assignment helped to develop and hone not only my writing skills but also my people and communications skills.

There is no better way to start a career as a journalist than to jump with both feet into a community setting where you are a complete outsider and let your news gathering instincts take control.

In those pre-digital days, the newspaper copy was typed on a Remington Electric typewriter. There were no electronic spell checkers and so each reporter had to proof read their articles and check spelling, grammar and overall punctuation.

Your typed stories were then submitted to a person using a machine that typed your stories onto photo sensitive paper and then set out to dry on a story board. This board held all the news features that were going to be published in that week’s edition. This was a cold type procedure.

As an official jack-of-all-trades, I was also the paper’s sports and news photographer. I used a simple 35 mm camera, flash, wide angle lens and 300 mm zoom lens. You had to check your lighting settings, bracket your shots and hope you captured a useable image. The film needed to be processed (souped up) in the dark room and print sheets hung to dry for later editing.

As the editor-in-chief, it was my responsibility to gather leads and create a bit of public relations with the paper’s readers. You had to gain people’s trust before they would actually accept you as one of the town folk. Eventually, I gained a healthy and friendly working relationship with the people living there.

My office was a small yet adequately spaced setting wherein I hung my hat, stored my camera gear and wrote my weekly assortment of news, sports and feature articles. I shared the back section of the office with the barber shop next door. A cozy yet friendly arrangement.

The paper was put to bed on Wednesday evening and published on Thursday morning. This meant that everyone involved with the paper would be laying out their pre-printed stories, pictures and advertising copy during this eight hour marathon. The job was usually completed by four a.m.

I was on call twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. I always carried my camera and note pad and pencil with me no matter where I went. The experience there helped to develop my writing skills and also allowed me to appreciate the fact that small town publications knit a community as a whole.

Thanks so much for joining us, Gerry. What a fascinating look back at the newspaper industry! Don’t forget to visit Gerry at Nibbled News. In the meantime, does anyone have questions for Gerry about his newspaper experience? Newspapers have undergone a great deal of changes over the years, posting their content online and often taking a less community-oriented approach. Readers, do you think newspapers are changing for the better or worse?

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  1. Thanks so much for joining us today, Gerry, and for the fantastic post! Your article brought back a lot of memories as I started my writing career working for a newsroom in a small daily newspaper. Even in the mid- 1990s, during my job interview I had to take a spelling test on a manual typewriter as there were still a lot of remnants from the past at the paper. We didn’t even have email yet. I know technology has changed a lot as I was recently interviewed by a newspaper, and the reporter took a couple minutes of video footage to use on their web site!

    I remember the importance of cultivating sources. How did you gain people’s trust so that they would feel motivated to share news tips and support the paper in other ways?

  2. Also, to answer my own questions, my opinion is that I think newspapers are self-destructing. I don’t understand how they can survive financially by giving away their product for free on the Internet. This might make it more convenient for readers, but it must have a huge detrimental effect on sales.

    I know many of them have had to cut back their staffing, and as a result the quality of their news coverage is going downhill. Many don’t have the time or the inclination to pursue feature stories in the way that they used to. A lot of the dailies are also using more wire stories from places beyond the local area. In the past, a community newspaper used to focus on that community, but I see newspapers moving away from that and I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. I’m interested to know what others think.

  3. Darcia Helle says

    It’s funny – and scary – to think that most of the kids today don’t even know what an electric typewriter is, much less a manual one! We had a manual at home when I was young and I typed on it all the time. Then, in high school, I took “typing” as a course and we used electric typewriters. Now it’s called “keyboarding”!

    Since both of you have been in the journalism business, I’m curious about your opinion on something I read a while back. As we know, newspapers are dying and Internet companies like Yahoo are taking over the “news” business. But all they do is basically steal stories from others who worked hard to find, research, and write them. The method I read to combat this made sense to me. Rather than demand people pay for a subscription (to any Internet-based news), have readers pay per article. If you see a headline and teaser of interest, you pay 2 cents, or 5 or 10, to read it. That way, no reader is forced to pay for a subscription to an entire newspaper, when perhaps only 2 articles interest him or her. What are your thoughts on this method?

  4. That’s really interesting, Darcia! I think it makes sense, but readers are so used getting their content for free on the Internet that I don’t know if enough readers would pay per article to make it successful. I personally wouldn’t bother to go through the steps to pay for an article, even a few cents, unless it was a really, really, really unique article as in the time it took to do that, I could probably find something else. It would have to be exactly what I was looking for, as in most cases, I’m just not that curious. I don’t know, I think newspapers are just dying.

    The only newspapers I read are local weekly and monthly ones, with the local news, and even those are starting to put content on the web. Those are usually free anyway, so I guess it doesn’t hurt them and it pleases their advertisers, but do we really want every school honor roll, Little League story and bus route posted on the Internet? Does the world really care and do we want all that information about ourselves so easily accessible to the whole world? Will people cut down on the information they submit to local papers for privacy reasons, which will decrease their quality?

    The Internet is great, but in my opinion, the local news business is really deteriorating — and the industry did it to themselves.

  5. Darcia Helle says

    Have you seen any of the news sites that are specifically for your local news? You enter your zip code and the page loads with all the headlines for your area. One of them is There are others and they are a relatively new thing, so many cities and towns aren’t yet covered.

    The pay-per-article thing definitely has kinks such as what you mentioned. I think the article had mentioned that each person would have an account to draw from, maybe on the idea of a PayPal button that you just click and it’s effortless.

    I do think that the quality of news has deteriorated horribly and that has to be due to the lack of real journalists out there. I know that the trend is toward free news (and free everything!) but news stories are work and don’t simply appear on your screen by some magical source. I don’t think all news should be free any more than I think books should all be free. When we start expecting that, we also have to accept a lesser quality.

  6. I definitely agree – when you just have free news, then the credibility and quality are diminished. I wonder how newspapers will deal with these problems in the future. Technology is changing everything, even book publishing. Wouldn’t it be interesting to fast forward 25 years, and see how all of this plays out?

  7. Darcia Helle says

    By the time your kids are in high school, they could be using eReaders instead of lugging around text books and using laptops instead of notebooks. What really bothers me is this “everything should be free” mentality of kids (and adults) who are growing up with technology. Music, movies, books, news – it’s all expected to be available at the click of a mouse, as if no one worked to provide the media forms they’re enjoying. We have this ridiculous disparity between megastar authors like Janet Evanovich who get $50 million dollar contracts for 4 books and the majority (like us) who struggle to convince people our work is worth paying for. Few of us can afford to work for free! Hopefully, we’ll find some sort of balance before all we have left are the megastars.

Stacy Juba