By Mark Wood
My career as a journalist was short-lived but intense. I would say “rich,”
but that would be misleading. I spent those years hovering happily just
above the poverty line. After marriage and a child, I probably dipped below.
But I’ve never enjoyed a job more than those five years at a small-town
daily in rural Arkansas. I worked at various times as darkroom technician,
photographer, editorial cartoonist, beat reporter, feature writer, sports
writer, wire editor, lay-out designer and paste-up artist. There were days—
lots of them, now that I think about it—when I was all of these things in
rapid succession, juggling tasks with the energy of the young and dedicated.
Armed with reporter’s pad and camera, pockets bulging with pens and
filmpacks, I sat through interminable city council and planning commission
meetings, reporting on setback variances and airport fees. I dug through
stacks of police reports and court filings like a 49er panning for gold. I
schmoozed with city employees and petty politicians. I took pictures of
schoolchildren holding awards and donors brandishing shovels. I wrote my
stories on a green-screened computer terminal in the corner of a noisy newsroom
and helped paste up the newspaper in a backroom redolent of hot
wax. Then, while the day’s paper was rolling off the presses, I went back out
in search of the day’s new happenings.
Of course, most of what we called journalism in Batesville, Ark., would
probably strike you as pretty lightweight stuff—a feature about a woman
turning 100 or a man who spent his weekends exploring caves, a story about
the widening of a street or a fire at a local landfill—but not all of it was fluff
and routine. Because of an agreement between the newspaper and the local
police, I was, for several years, on call two nights a week as a police photographer.
In that role, I saw a few things I’d rather forget. The worst, for some
reason, was usually processing the film afterward. There was always something
starkly real about those reversed images on a strip of negatives, hanging
there in the ruddy twilight of a darkroom. But whether I was covering a
school board meeting or a fatal plane crash, I never doubted for a moment
that I was doing something meaningful. Something important.
One winter night after midnight, I was awakened by a call from our editor,
got dressed, and went down to the office to shiver in the cold, along
with the rest of the staff, and watch our newspaper building burn to the
ground. Standing there among the flashing lights of the firetrucks, we made
plans for the following day. The next morning, numb but defiant, we gathered
around a folding table in the backroom of a local print shop, typed up
our stories on a couple of borrowed typewriters and ferried everything to a
neighboring town to be typeset and printed. We didn’t miss a single issue,
something that is still a source of pride after all these years.
I’ve thought back to that night at times as I’ve watched the nation’s entire
newspaper industry seem to burn slowly but inexorably to ashes. I don’t really
think of myself as a journalist any more, but there are some loyalties that
never fade, and the ethic of the journalist—the feeling of being part of a tradition
that is honest, exacting and important—is something I still cherish.
That tradition is why I have faith that this is only a transition. Newpapers may
fade into history, but journalism as a profession and a positive force will
endure. The alternative is simply impossible for me to imagine.