Internship at rural newspaper reinforces desire to serve readers

“Ten weeks, 55 work days,” I calculated in May, skeptical I’d survive — let alone thrive — in the rural town of DeWitt, Iowa. When I walked into The Observer 55 days ago, I had one goal: to write my naïve idea of “big” stories (corporate corruption, government fraud, social injustice and the like).

At The Observer, however, I covered a container gardening competition, barn quilting and a city council meeting where the “debate” revolved around new holiday decorations (elves vs. snowmen) for the lone city park.

While my work hardly fit my preconceived idea of “hard” news, I realized “big” stories aren’t limited to fraud and corporate exploitation. “Big” stories serve the readers, and the readers determine the definition, whether it’s revealing government corruption or explaining container gardening guidelines.

Before my time at The Observer, I presumed reporters at bi-weekly and weekly papers had simpler, easier work lives. While deadlines aren’t as severe at a rural paper, rural reporters face their own workplace challenges.

Overlapping newsroom roles, for instance, interrupt the fluid thought process necessary for writing on deadline. At The Observer, staff members dabble in nearly every facet of production in a back-and-forth, whiplash-worthy cycle.

The sports editor, for instance, doubles as a receptionist. The copy editor doubles as bookkeeper. The photo editor doubles as legal typist and page designer.

With disparate roles intersecting, Observer reporters face near-constant pressure to multitask. As a result, I learned to appreciate the moments dedicated to a single story. I am not entitled to a natural flow of ideas, as I naively believed.

While I didn’t achieve the one goal I set, I left The Observer with a sense of accomplishment, an arsenal of portfolio-ready stories, a “Big Bang Theory” care package from the staff, a newsroom of people rooting for me and most of all, a renewed desire to let the readers guide every word I write.

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