Confessions of a Republican Journalist: Cub Reporter
Some reporters go directly from a prestigious, liberal-minded journalism school directly to a lowest-rung position writing obituaries or sorting through press releases at a large, bustling daily newspaper. The alternative to this approach is the far less prestigious yet extremely useful baptism by fire at a small-town newspaper. It’s the journalistic equivalent of walking to school three miles in the snow with no shoes: You suffer for your craft and get to scare newbies down the line with your tales of indentured servitude.
Consider a town of only 15,000 people. Home to an annual raisin festival, in the grand California tradition of towns across the state claiming their own unique crops for purposes of celebration (Gilroy = garlic festival, Castroville = artichoke festival, Oxnard = strawberry festival, etc.). This town had one Kmart. It also was home to a 3,000-circulation weekly newspaper where I covered city council, police and fire, school board, obituaries and other assorted events, wrote a weekly column, took my own photos and laid out my own pages. I never delivered the paper, though I could have used the cash.
It was my first full-time newspaper job. The pay was somewhere between college student and abject poverty. The old building (very early 1900s) had scary, dark corners — I was so creeped out by the building’s recesses, I’d drive home to use the loo — crusty books stuffed with yellowed back editions and a mouse that would visit my office and tickle my feet when I was writing stories. The editor and publisher had ruled the roost pushing 50 years when I worked there, and only wore ties on days he served as someone’s pallbearer.
And the exciting stories, the ripe journalistic opportunities?
“I want you to go do this story on National Breastfeeding Awareness Month today,” the editor directed in his usual gruff voice one day, a signature spooky creak of the floorboards heralding his arrival in my office.
I winced. I cringed. I considered feigning illness. I chose begging and pleading in a measured voice. “Please don’t make me do this.”
“Well, I can’t do it. I’d look like a pervert!” he barked back.
So I picked up my little white spiral notebook emblazoned with a blue “NEWS” on the front and spent the next hour at a local office where low-income moms picked up vouchers to buy orange juice and milk. But the woman behind the desk wasn’t talking about cow’s milk.
“When you want a snack, do you think you should have to go into a bathroom to get that snack?” she asked mid-lecture while wagging a finger at me, drumming home her point about a woman’s right to breastfeed whenever, wherever, however she wanted without a single disparaging look from passers-by — who, by the way, would be rude and intrusive if they dared wrinkle their noses at the sight.
But the big cheese in the milk program didn’t know I was one of “those” people that she railed against, not a prude but someone who just would like to see a bit of decorum when it comes to breast-feeding. She just was pontificating to an objective (hah), fair-minded (heh) journalist working on a classic filler story of limited importance.
These are the stories of small-town papers. Some journalists love this news and stay at these tiny publications their whole lives, becoming fixtures in the community and dying at their desks of old age. Some dreamers simply find the experience a strenuous steppingstone, and move out and on as soon as possible. When I was hired, I didn’t quite understand why the editor asked me for a yearlong commitment. Soon I understood.
Picture covering the town’s beauty pageant and trying to keep a straight face in the “talent” competition as a teen danced across stage in lederhosen while playing a trombone. Or third-graders trying to re-create James Cameron’s re-creation of the sinking of the Titanic (minus the Model T sex scene, thankfully). Coma-inducing city council meetings that droned on into the wee hours of the night as they lazily debated stop signs and sewage.
But at least there was some politics, and not just because it was here where I first met now-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (and first disliked him).
The first campaign I covered was the California gubernatorial race of 1998, when Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis ran against Attorney General Dan Lungren. Davis’ wife, Sharon (pictured left), was on a campaign swing through Central California. She stopped at the senior center in my small town for a stump speech, and I was assigned to cover it.
What I found at the senior center was a handful of residents waiting for Davis’ entourage, waving signs for Lungren. After Davis went into the center to interrupt the seniors‘ lunch, the pickets — most of them little old ladies — tried to go in to hear the speech as well, and were stopped by the town’s mayor and the facilities director from entering. Why? After all, it was a public building, and the Republican seniors were just as old as the others inside. “You were going to ask a loaded question,” was the mayor’s reasoning, as he wagged a finger at the pro-Lungren bunch.
If Sharon Davis couldn’t handle a “loaded question,” whatever that meant, why was she on the campaign trail for her hubby? I later sat down with her for my first big campaign interview, where she gave generic answers to my weak newbie questions, her hair in a pert little flip and her face frozen in a gummy smile.
When I got back to the newsroom, my boss nudged me toward the real story of the day: not Davis’ rehearsed campaign-wife answers, not the amazing fact that any candidate had remembered the town existed, but that the mayor’s blocking of the door had denied the GOP seniors their freedom of speech, right to access, pursuit of happiness in getting to hassle a Democrat, etc. This was big stuff for a little podunk town!
“Davis‘ wife visits here: Local Republicans get cold shoulder.” Page one, lead story. Yet coming from a 3,000-circ. weekly in a town better known for shriveled grapes than political bombshells, the story didn’t even dent the Davis campaign armor.
I’m not sure the small town was ready for the big-city girl. I know I sure wasn’t ready for it. I couldn’t get used to everyone knowing everybody’s business — hey, that was my career, not pastime. Large cities are often characterized as impersonal and unfriendly, but I don’t see that — a bit of anonymity is a comfort (says the blogress airing her dirty laundry) and people still help people. I missed the variety, the bustle, roads with more than two lanes.
I had a column at the weekly paper, as I would in some shape or form wherever I went in my career. And it was from this that I learned the greatest lesson in journalism, in the form of a note from an angry reader:
“She offends someone nearly every week with her column,” the man railed in scrawly handwriting, continuing with a full paragraph of complaints about me.
And he wrote this on the back of his subscription renewal.
So therein lies the great commandment of pundit, of editor, of reporter: They may love you, they may hate you — but as long as they read you, who cares?
-From Bridget Johnson’s blog, GOP Vixen