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Bigger isn't always better in newspaper business

May 25, 2008|By BILL KOHLER

A funny thing happened on the way to the Washington Post.

I had it all figured out 20 years ago: Work a couple of jobs at smaller papers and find out what they know. I'll make some contacts, work my beats, get some killer clips and I'll be covering the Redskins or Wizards (or Bullets as they were known back then) by the time I'm 29 or 30.

A funny thing happened on the way to RFK Stadium.

This month marks 20 years since I graduated with a journalism degree from Shippensburg University. And with that kind-of-frightening milestone comes another - 20 years of full-time employment in newspapers.

My actual log-in time in the business is longer. I got the bug while a freshman at Shippensburg, when I got a story published on an inside sports page in my hometown paper, The Record Herald, in Waynesboro, Pa.

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I switched my major from public relations to communications/journalism, worked for The RH and the campus newspaper the rest of my three years, did an internship at WHTM-27 in Harrisburg, Pa., bade farewell to my frat buddies, hugged a few pretty girls, hopped in my two-tone VW bug ("the Blade") and away I went to the Washington Post.

Well, I didn't make it to the Post, and I'm OK with that.

What I found along the way didn't pay me as much money or get my stories in as many hands, and I'm OK with that.

What I found was that I really enjoyed community journalism. It was something I excelled at and was passionate about.

What I found was that at smaller newspapers, you get to know your readers more than you'd ever imagine. You never really get a total feel for what they want all the time, but you get to know them and what they feel is important.

Things like their money, education, their money, local sports, their money, their neighbors, entertainment and their money top the list.

What I found on my road to the Post is that it's possible to make a big ripple in a small pond, that newspapers can commit to public service and the common good while being accurate, fair and timely.

What surprised me many years ago is how deeply people care about their hometown papers. They complain and rag on them all the time.

"Kohler? You the Kohler that writes for the paper?" they'd ask.

"That depends on whether you're mad or not," I'd respond.

"That so-and-so paper is nothing but a liberal rag," they'd say.

But they want them to be good. They want them to be pillars of the community, report on the truth and get to the bottom of issues. They want them to do all this while being on time, on their porch and in a bag when it's raining.

All for 50 cents.

I'm OK with that.

What I found is that I thrived not on paychecks (although I always wanted more - it's my nature), but on getting it right, pushing the envelope, pushing deadlines until the production manager had smoke coming out of his ears and having a little fun, too.

The last 6 1/2 years at The Herald-Mail have made me a better journalist and certainly a better editor. Working with talented, committed people is contagious if you allow yourself to catch it.

So what about the next 20?

That's hard to say for many of us who love this business.

No one's completely sure what a newspaper company will look like in one decade, let alone two.

One thing I know with absolute certainty is that people will always have a thirst for knowledge and want to know about their money, their taxes, local sports, their neighbors and, yeah, their money.

And I'll probably be somewhere telling people about it or helping make sure it gets there on time, on their porch or computer screen, and in a bag if it's raining.

All for 50 cents.

And I'm OK with that.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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