It happens two, maybe three times a week. Every. Single. Week.
Maybe in a Walmart aisle. A guy who recently bought a chicken coop from me looked once, then twice, before he said it. Most recently, someone stopped me on Herpel Road with the point-blank interrogatory.
You that guy down at the paper?
If I’ve been asked that question once in the last year, I’ve heard it a hundred times.
My standard reply: “Yep, I’m that guy.”
Names aren’t always easy to recall. And yes, the photo on the header above is pretty small.
One man recently said, “You look a little different in that picture than in person.”
“Yes, I’m much better looking in person,” I said.
It’s endearing, actually. For a flatlander from “off,” it’s about as native as I get to feel when it comes to community.
That guy down at the paper. Has kind of nice ring to it.
That to say, dear reader, that we are coming upon a special occasion, you and I. It’s our anniversary. I’ve been “that guy” down at the paper for a year now. Cue the trumpet score, and happy anniversary to us.
It was August 5, 2020, year of our Lord, that I walked into the Stone County Leader for the first time as an employee. A few months earlier I’d neared the completion of a new cabin in my beloved Round Bottom Valley, and honestly, I liked it here a lot. The original plan was for Mountain View to be a place of escape for me to think and write, and to create a place where our family could gather and create good memories. Jonesboro would remain our primary home. But time on the river and in that valley had a strange effect on me. I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted to leave.
I must have started the e-mail a half dozen times before actually writing and hitting “send.”
Lori Freeze and I were friends at Arkansas State University. In fact, I was Lori’s editorial page editor the semester she was editor-in-chief of the university’s bi-weekly newspaper, The Herald. Funny how some things repeat themselves. While I’m not technically the editorial page editor here at the Leader, it has evolved that I have some responsibility for its production. I digress.
Because we’d stayed in touch over the years, I was pretty comfortable writing Lori just to say that if she ever needed any help, I was around, and relatively free. Maybe I’d hear back from her, maybe not. No big.
The reply was actually a quick one.
As it turned out, long-time staffer Edie Sutterfield was nearing maternity leave, and Lori wasn’t sure how she’d fill in those gaps. That’s exactly what I wanted to do -- fill in some gaps and help.
Though diverse on paper, my entire career revolves around mass media on one side or the other. I’ve worked in the media as a newspaper reporter and publisher for several magazine-type publications. And I’ve worked with the media as a press secretary and public information officer.
So other than learning few specifics about things like software, and names of elected officials, and what spot I could call mine inside the break room refrigerator, I was the kind of hire that could relatively well hit the ground running. It was good for me. I would like to think it was good for her.
Being the new guy on the reporting turf in a small community has its challenges. Our ability to bring news to light that is in the community’s best interest is as much about relationships as anything. A year ago, I had zero ties to community leadership, or the county government, and only a vague notion of all the great traditions and Ozark legacies that help define Stone County.
The only manner in which a community journalist can build those relationships is to jump in and do the work (knowing people will be hesitant and cautions with the ‘new guy’) and prove yourself. People don’t have to like you (though it’s nice when they do). They do need to respect and trust you do write accurately and with good judgment.
What I’ve discovered at the Stone County Leader is something quite special. If you don’t know this, I hope you’ll take the word of someone from “off.”
The Leader is the essence of community journalism. Unlike so many other places across rural America where newspapers are dying, the Leader is about more about informing you than about ad revenue and rack sales. Those things are important, and a newspaper is a business. But I hope you’ll support the Leader, its balance and fairness, and for how it looks at the big picture of the community with every edition. Each week, the Leader shapes much of the community dialogue. It’s one of several institutions that help define who we are as a community. Take it from “that guy down at the paper.”
Happy anniversary to you and me, and thanks for making me feel so welcome around here.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at email@example.com).