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A few days ago, a story in my Facebook news feed caught my eye. It was a Q&A in The Awl with Jonathan Austin, the owner of a small weekly in Yancey County, N.C. — the Yancey County News. With his wife, Susan, Jonathan runs a paper that recently received both the E.W. Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment and the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism
 
The award entries exposed remarkable corruption in Yancey County: elections fraud, abuse of arrest powers and the pawning of county-owned firearms by the deputy sheriff. Judges of the Ancil Payne award called the Austins’ work “an extraordinary example of serving the public good.”  
These awards are big. But Yancey County is small. 
It’s not far, in fact, from the N.C. mountain town where my student newspaper operates. We’ve often used the excuse that our town is just too small for big journalism. “If we were in Chapel Hill, we could do what The Daily Tar Heel does,” we’ll say. “There’s just not enough going on here.”  
 
The Yancey County News is proof that our excuse just doesn’t hold water. I thought Jonathan might have some wisdom to share for student journalists, so I asked him a few questions over email. 
Read below for Jonathan’s thoughts on journalism in the trenches: making your own resources, finding your own stories and allowing your brain to engage. 


I think often, student journalists think they can’t produce journalism as well as the “big guys” because they don’t have as many resources. But your paper has exposed corruption your bigger competitors overlooked. How and why did that happen? 

It is always interesting to read the obituaries for the big guys to see where they came from. Practice doing that and you soon realize they many came from small(ish) towns. For example, a mentor and late friend of mine – John Lee – was a driving force in the modernization of the New York Times. I gave him a shout out in the Awl story, because he meant so much to my development. (The Awl linked to his NYT obit, btw.) Go read that obit. He was born in Walterboro, S.C., which is, if you don’t know, a collection of fast-food restaurants you only visit if you are going to spend the week at Edisto Beach. (And you only spend about 17 minutes there at max.) John went to Duke, but hell, Duke never beat Michigan at football.


I don’t think the issue is ‘resources’. A great thing about journalism now is that you have all the world’s resources on your computer.


Consider a young woman I met at the Scripps Awards ceremony in Detroit – Sara Ganim, a 24-year-old cop reporter. In a recent profile of her, the DailyBeast wrote: “After a year at college, she began contributing to the Sun-Sentinel in her hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she attended Archbishop McCarthy High School. Crime is her daily fare, and it’s usually not the kind of work that gains much attention. Much of the time, her stories could have happened almost anywhere. One potboiler Ganim report chronicles the theft of a $150 piece of kitchenware and consists of two sentences, the second of which is, “The woman told police the friend is refusing to return the slow-cooker.”


Sara is, of course, now the cop reporter at Harrisburg, Penn., a town of 47,000. Or better put, she is the Pulitzer-winning “Jerry Sandusky” reporter. But at the Scripps awards dinner, she said the Penn State saga really is just a basic crime story that grew larger and larger. She is 24 years old. In her recent past is a crime brief about the theft of kitchenware. But she is a seriously curious lady who latches onto a story like a Jack Russell, and I bet she triple checks every fact.


If you have all the ‘resources’ in the world, you just might turn into Jason Blair, working at the New York Times but apparently unable to write a story without ripping off other journalists. Make your own resources.


In my case, the fact that other media had ignored real serious problems in Yancey County actually worked in my favor, because, A) the power structure had come to believe they could do anything and no one cared, so they did, blatantly; B) the competition was lazy for so long that seemingly they are now unable to refocus on the concept of doing real work (even to this day); and C) the larger regional paper was and is so money focused, due to the debt load of its corporate owner, that they really can’t seem to see the value of freeing up a smart reporter for some digging in a tiny town just 45 minutes away.


The key  is just to put your brain on cruise control and let it spin. Story ideas should POP out. Practice and they will. A journalist’s best RESOURCE is the spongy thing between their ears. Even if you only have a pencil and some old envelopes (from unpaid bills) in the glove box, you can still write the stories.

There’s also a tendency among young journalists to think huge stories like the ones you uncovered are impossible to find. For journalists who want to look beyond the surface and stop reporting the obvious, what do you recommend? 

In the past five or so years, three western North Carolina sheriffs have been removed for their poor performance. One – in Buncombe – was taking kickbacks from video poker operators. He’s now in federal prison. One in Henderson had a mental health issue arise at about the same time a subordinate was paid off for allegations of improper sexual advances, or some such thing. Another, maybe Rutherford County? was relieved for criminal behavior. And my Yancey sheriff won his election after his deputies got votes from the criminals they were always arresting.


See a pattern? Again, Sara Ganim is just a cop reporter. She found the ‘impossible’ story. These sheriff cases were all crime stories. The cop beat is a wonderful place to learn how to develop the skills to look beyond the obvious.


The key, again, is to do your job. Go out and cover news, and I bet NEWS starts to appear, if you are consistent and willing to work at it every day. I know, I get lazy, too, or tired, or stressed. I own my paper, so I have the right to say, “I’m going home to pull weeds!” But I am always thinking. I go to sleep thinking about stories. I carry a camera in the car all the time, and a couple of blank notebooks and several pens. News is happening everywhere, if you are willing to see it.


I once decided that I wanted to have big mounds of asparagus growing in my yard. I really like asparagus. I can stand in the yard on a spring morning and eat it right there. I was told a lot of asparagus grows on the sides of the road, cause apparently the seeds fall off farm trucks as they go by. I had NEVER seen it on the side of the road. I asked someone how to find it, and was told “just look – hard – as you are driving. Train your eye to see it, I was told. so I worked at it. And worked at it. Suddenly, there, in my peripheral vision on day – driving down a road 45 miles per hour – I saw a bunch. IT WAS THERE. I stopped, and marked it with a little red ribbon. when the plant died back that winter I went back and got the big root ball and planted it in my yard. I had trained myself to SEE IT.


I’m not saying THE REALLY BIG STORIES ARE ALWAYS ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. But the stories that you write as you hone your skills and develop your voice are there. Write a lot, get it right, and, oddly, the larger stories start to appear. I know it may sound like a ‘trust me’ moment, but you have to develop your skills in order to even recognize the really interesting stories. The more time you spend writing accurate news about seemingly boring things, the better you are developing the ability to find the non boring stories, or to consider stories as non-boring. There really is no boring story. Maybe just bored writers.


Story tip: Living in Celo, a Yancey community, is a man who was the chief engineer for the Hubble telescope. That would seem to be a great profile.


Who lives in your town that you don’t even know about? Who was born there and left to do great things?


You mentioned in your email that all great journalists have to first work in the trenches. How can a young journalist jump into the trench — and what should they be doing to prepare themselves for a future in journalism? 


(See the thousand words I wrote above about working in the trenches.) Ok. Now, as for the future. As I hope my situation proves, there is good journalism occurring in small towns. You many not appreciate it – I know, I love the big city lights, too – but some of the most fertile areas for journalism is in the towns that lie just outside the cities, because the city paper doesn’t have the resources to cover it all.


You want to be a sports writer? A friend of mine went from the Hendersonville newspaper to Golf Digest, where he was hired to ghost write a book for Tiger Woods’ father. He became a good writer at the Hendersonville newspaper, and that skill is what attracted the owners of the big company.


You have some of the best opportunities because you can create your own brand through blogging and tumblr. I love to tweet from our local football games, imagining there are many people who can’t be there and are not near enough to listen on radio. So I reach out, include them in my audience, and who knows, maybe they will become subscribers. I have online readers in Iraq, Alaska and Wales, meaning my reach at this moment is greater than it ever was when I was a daily newspaper reporter.


When I was the editor at the Marshall, N.C., weekly, I wrote a short story that became one of the most viral, worldwide items that year. It was about how the Woodfin Police Department closed down Interstate 26 just north of Asheville for about 25 minutes on a busy weekday afternoon to allow a mother bear access to drag away the body of her cub that had been hit and killed by a truck. That story went everywhere, and I wrote it (interview time and all) in about 35 minutes. So again, I believe the most important aspects of being a successful and happy journalist is to be curious, to write stories every day to the best of your ability (the honing part) and to always be considering what you see or hear with the eyes and ears of a reporter. I heard about the momma bear thing from a clerk in the courthouse, who was loudly complaining about how the traffic tie-up made her late for an appointment. I caught her tale in my radar, and I CHOSE TO DWELL ON THE TOPIC for a moment, just letting it percolate in my brain. Hmmmm. Interstate closed to let momma bear get her dead baby. Hmmmm. Hmmmmm.


The trenches are everywhere; you live in them. The trenches are there as you are driving past the convenience store at 2 a.m. You see two cars outside. One is the clerk’s; you know it by sight. The other must belong to the lady playing video poker in the corner. At 2 a.m. On the bumper of her car is a sticker: “My kid is an honor student at Drysdale Elementary.” Hmmmmmm. Hmmmmmm. Mom is out at 2 a.m. playing video poker. Who is home with that child? Who helps that child do her homework. Hmmmmm. Hmmmmm.


Make your brain work like that and you will succeed, no matter how deep or rural your particular trench. Stop. Look. Consider. Hmmmmmmm.


That noise is the sound of a brain trying to engage. Let it.
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