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A small-town reporter can make a difference

April 13, 2011

Catherine Litt’s blog pointed out the following inspiring story of a newspaper editor at a small-town weekly American paper with a three-person newsroom who recently broke open a cold-case murder file that dated back more than 40 years.

In this hollowed-out little town of 3,511 people, a newspaperman named Stanley Nelson can be found most days clattering away on a decade-old Mac computer. He moves with a slow and purposeful calm. But he too has been roiling the waters.

Not long past New Year’s Day — after four years of painstaking shoe leather, deep document dives and endless interviews — Nelson published a front page exposé like none the weekly Concordia Sentinel had ever seen.

more…

I don’t use the word “inspiring” lightly here. This is one of those fairly-rare examples of a good reporter practising the type of large-scale journalism that I get a sense many (but clearly not all) believe is impossible at small newspapers.

As editor of the Sentinel and head of a news staff of three, Nelson for decades tended to local government, public works, historical features and business in a challenged community, where the healthiest-looking storefronts belong to Jo Jo’s Drive-Thru Daiquiris and the parish work release office.

Nelson had never been particularly political, though he had a vague notion he wanted to do something bigger…

If you read on, though, you’ll notice that the story didn’t fall into Nelson’s lap, rather he went after it and conducted dozens of interviews, only picking up a trail after speaking to 20-odd people. I think there’s a good chance that such stories lay hidden in most small B.C. towns. Whether they can be uncovered, of course, is one thing. But while many papers do try and explore big local issues, there are also many that simply lack ambition, for whatever reason.

Nelson’s story, I think, puts the lie to self-defeated journalists who say they don’t have the time. Most of us have at least a little free time during the work week to invest in a bigger story down the road. And it’s those stories that make a person want to keep working.

So go forth and chase those red herrings. And maybe, one day, you’ll bump into Moby Dick out there.

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