About three weeks ago, Sarah Cooper, a cub reporter but a Tribune veteran of three years, informed me that she was leaving. She explained to me that her new husband had just been accepted to a medical school program that would require them to move out of the country for a few years. He was to leave in a few weeks and she would be joining him at the beginning of September. So right after unwrapping her wedding gifts and settling into a new apartment, she gets to pack up her life and move to England. Yikes.
While I wished her well, I was also thinking, “Crap, who is going to report about city council now?” I got permission to post an ad for a community news reporter and sat down to write a job description. This is the second time in my professional life I have been charged with hiring a new employee and my first time at the Tribune (not counting hiring interns).
I knew the basics of what the reporter’s “beats” would be — city and county government, business and crime — but they would be covering these areas from a community news perspective. “Community newspaper” is a term we toss around but I hadn’t really analyzed before.
Let’s take the term “community news reporter” backwards. Starting with “reporter,” the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the job as follows: “Reporters gather information and write news stories. These stories appear in newspapers and magazines. ... To get information, reporters look at documents. They also observe the scene and interview people.”
Parts of this task are simple, others are quite complex. These days people who go to college for journalism get good training on the nuts and bolts of how to ask questions, find information and then present the facts in an article.
The “news” part of the job title entails part of the judgment of which facts a reporter gathers and presents to readers. What is news? News is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the subscriber. It is the job of a reporter, with the help of an editor and fellow reporters, to figure out what their readers will care about and hence what is the news. A key ingredient to answering that question lies in the first word on the job title: “community.”
The Sparks Tribune bills itself as “Your community newspaper since 1910.” While the paper does carry some national and even regional news as provided by other news services, the primary function of reporters in its direct employ is to gather and disseminate information from the community.
So, what is the community? In our newsroom we start with the borders of the city of Sparks as our first guideline. But we also know that people who live in Sparks don’t just stay in the city limits for their various activities so we do pay attention to Reno and other areas, too. So in part, the community is defined by geography.
Within the politically defined borders, however, community has many other meanings, and a community news reporter’s ability to find those meanings is what makes or breaks the job. A community can also be a neighborhood or street where residents feel united by a commonality, such as a love of their local school, a hatred for potholes in the road, a fear of crime or sadness over the death of a longtime neighbor. A community can be built around a church whose comfort and spirituality draws people from all parts of town to give praise or do good works for the less fortunate. A business can have its own community, whether it is a small family-owned operation with just a few employees or a large company with dozens or hundreds, as long as people are working together on a project they believe in and trying to pay their bills. After the whistle blows, a community can grow when people bond at a bar over locally brewed beer, good live music and loose slots or maybe at a soccer field where parents and children of various families work together to have a good time and take home bragging rights.
When a reporter truly understands and cares about all three elements of the job of a community news reporter, he or she can feel not only professional pride but personal fulfillment for helping a community understand itself and how it fits into the larger community and world. I will work to find the best person to be part of the Sparks Tribune’s community and I hope the people and leaders of Sparks will help this person understand their communities.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have job applications to review.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.