Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Pomona College Magazine is published three times a year by Pomona College
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Online Editor: Laura Tiffany

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Editor: Mark Wood
Phone: (909) 621-8158
Fax: (909) 621-8203

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Burning News

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.

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by Pomona College
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