When most people talk to me about publication, they have a tendency to think big–something book-length published by one of the major houses. In fact I’m surprised how often people who have never had work published before, and in some cases haven’t really done much writing, think in terms of books whenever they start. In my classes, I try to get my students to think small–local papers, more accessible literary magazines, publications geared toward student work. In doing this, they are not only increasing their opportunities at getting published and building a track record, but also have an opportunity to experience the unique and personal approach smaller publications can offer.
Beth Baxter, publisher of the Focus, a small monthly tabloid in Western Pennsylvania that focuses on good news from the local community, visited my class this week and talked about the experience of editing a small paper and how such a publication can provide a learning experience for new writers. Based in a rural area where there isn’t a daily or even weekly traditional newspaper, Beth said part of her motivation to cover only positive news was that the larger daily newspapers in surrounding towns and cities generally covered news in her community only if it was negative–someone arrested as part of a drug ring or a car accident with injuries. The positive side of a community she clear cares about ended up being lost.
In covering stories such as a boy scout completing a project to get his merit badge or a feature about a person with an interesting collection, she’s able to provide a more positive look at the local area. Students, listening to her, appeared interested, probably thinking about the easy outlet this would provide for building up clips and a portfolio. Like most small publications which often have a staff of one or two people doing everything from writing to proofing to layout and design, Beth has more story ideas on her desk than she has time to write about them and is more than happy to work with new writers–even those with no previous journalism experience. Pay, she emphasized, is nominal. The real reward is the publication and the experience of meeting some fascinating people.
And yes, that latter reward is far greater than someone who has never done this kind of work can ever imagine. When I’ve taught journalism classes, I’ve always regretted that the one part of the experience that can’t be duplicated in the classroom is the experience of meeting such a wide variety of people and the emotional side of what it’s like to share their stories. Beth talked about a woman she interviewed who had a button collection, some even dating back to the Civil War. The fascinating part of the story, she found, was when she interviewed the woman about the collection. Each button had a significant history. The woman would pull one out of the jar and begin telling its story.
I began my writing career working for a small town daily newspaper called The Latrobe Bulletin. The emphasis was always on local news– a school board meeting may get more coverage than a major national event–and a good feature was always welcome on the front page. One of my most memorable experiences was interviewing a local man who flew hot air balloons. I flew with him one morning and conducted the interview in the balloon. Hot air ballooning was not very common at the time and as we flew over a major highway in the area, people pulled off the road and got out of their cars to watch us fly over their heads. Sounds travel upwards and conversations on the ground could often be heard very clearly in the balloon. I remember him telling me that he especially liked flying over wealthy neighborhoods so that he could hear what the rich people had to say while they were sitting next to their pools.
The story provided some wonderful photographic opportunities, including a shot where our photographer was able to go inside and take picture of the balloon while it was being inflated. Our editor enjoyed the story and pictures so much that he simply moved all other news to other pages and gave us the entire front page. Only a small-town newspaper would have the luxury of doing that.
Some of my students have already started writing for locals. One showed me a story she did about a pep-rally for pre-schoolers just before the Steelers headed off to the Super Bowl and another visited a local animal refuge that cares for larger, exotic animals. Both shared pictures and stories about the experience of writing the story with me and seemed as excited about the process of covering the story as having the opportunity to publish.
Most of my students, I suspect, are still thinking big, using the experience the locals offer to gain experience and move on. And that’s perfectly fine. But Beth, who has years of experience working in journalism and public relations, is proof that smaller is no less significant. Her paper provides an invaluable service to a local community, noting contributions and accomplishments and making people feel good about where they live. She made it clear there isn’t anything else she would rather do.