The more things change, the more they stay the same in small town journalism

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

The classified ad caught my attention. It was placed by the Daily Tribune in Bay City, looking for a writer of sorts.

The ad took me back to 1979, when I applied at The Tribune for a writer’s job right out of college. Things were a little different back then, but judging from the ad, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The paper advertised an opening for “a full-time general assignments reporter/photographer.” The “ideal reporter” would also have to do some sports coverage, schools, local governments, crime and community events. The candidate, if hired, can also “join the creative process.”

In other words, they need (or needed) someone who can do everything. They would prefer a journalism education or background. In other words, they want someone so badly that anyone who can write his or her way out of a paper bag will be considered.

The company offers a “competitive benefits plan,” but there is no mention of salary. Because, it is very low. That was the same way when I applied there.

Welcome to small town journalism, where the lucky applicant can work as much as he or she wants for next to nothing, and will be stretched paper-thin on deadline.

In 1979, I drove out on a Saturday to see Jay Jacobs, who was the paper’s managing editor at the time. I was just out of J school and was visiting a friend in Houston when he called me back regarding my inquiry into a reporting position.

“I just had one come open,” he said. “Come down, and we’ll talk while I work on the paper.”
I mentioned this already in a previous column, but it’s worth repeating. When I got there, he was swamped, and was preparing to go take a picture of a horse.

I thought this had to be an important horse, because even in small towns, they don’t just put horse photos in the paper without a reason.

I rode with him to the assignment, and we talked on the way. Then, when he finished with the photos, he turned to me and said. “If you ride that horse, I’ll hire you on the spot.”

He didn’t want to see any clips or proof of a college degree. I rode the horse after receiving some instructions from its owner, and Jay hired me. That’s how I got to the Daily Tribune.

I was there for a year before moving on to another paper, and there wasn’t a lot within the realm of journalism that I didn’t do one time or another.

It was a blast.

I got more experience in the first few months than in a year sitting in a classroom. The classroom helped me handle the tasks, but there is no better way to learn than on deadline with the presses broken down, panicking.

We didn’t watch the clock. We came up with most of our assignments, and we worked into the night when we had to.

Yes, the pay stunk, and I don’t know if we had any benefits. If we did, I didn’t use them. And, we made a lot of friends and connections because in a small town the “newspaper man” at the time was known by just about everyone — from the mayor and county judge to the Little League kids. We did it all, and it was fascinating.

Like I said, not much has changed over the years, except for computerization, but one thing has.
Candidates in the classified ad are asked to send a resume and writing samples to an email address using a specific subject line.

I just had to ride a horse.