Survival of the Storytellers

In a dwindling and rapidly changing local news scene, young reporters step in to preserve the stories of their communities and of themselves. 

BY DENÉ K. DRYDEN | THE NEW TERRITORY ISSUE 10 (in print November 2020)

Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder sat in her desk chair, bare feet tucked cross-legged under herself. It’s a rainy Saturday, so a handful of employees were present at The Hutchinson News. The newsroom is old, long and perfectly built to accommodate the printing press in the back half of the building, right along the railroad tracks. Schroeder explained that trucks now deliver the huge vats of ink and rolls of paper, not the train. In the cold storeroom by the printing press, a hulking machine of ribbony reams and metal arms, the cardboard-covered rolls of newspaper are wound so tightly they cannot catch fire — no air, no breath between the pages just yet.

Schroeder, 26, is the managing editor. She works for one of the few newspapers in Kansas that prints in-house, each and every day, along with 40 other publications each month. It’s not the place she thought she’d end up working.

She graduated from Tabor College in nearby Hillsboro, Kansas. “My whole family went there, so it was kind of a given that I was going to end up there,” she said. “They don’t really have a journalism program, so it was not even close to being on my radar.”

Schroeder enjoyed studying religion, English and philosophy, but her heart called her to theater. By a professor’s suggestion, she entered a section of the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival competition focused on theater journalism — writing a review of a play, essentially, marrying her love of theater and writing skills. She won the regional competition and advanced to nationals in Washington, D.C. Her success convinced her to give journalism a try. 

Naysayers can say print is dead, that local newspapers are dwindling, shrinking. Some of that is true; weekday print circulation among U.S. newspapers decreased by 12% from 2017 to 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. In the decade between 2008 and 2018, newsroom employment dropped by a quarter across the country, newspapers taking the hardest hit.

Young journalist standing by The Hutchinson News entrance sign
Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder stands outside of her workplace in downtown Hutchinson, Kan. DENÉ DRYDEN

Despite the downtrends, local journalism still has a strong footing in some communities. For Kansas, over 220 news companies comprise the Kansas Press Association, with just a few of those publications reaching into interstate and national reportage; the rest work within a local lens.

Young journalists like Schroeder have faith in local news’ perseverance. They have faith not just in newspapers but in the persistence of storytelling and the community’s need for news. For reporters like her, that faith comes from the integral role of journalism in society and knowing that the most important stories are often the ones closest to home.

On the other end of the career-planning spectrum, Rafael Garcia knew he wanted to be a reporter early on. Hailing from a Mexican-American family in Emporia, Kansas, Garcia is a May 2019 graduate from Kansas State University. Despite his freshness in the professional world, he is no stranger to journalism. After starting a newspaper at his middle school and going on to be editor-in-chief of his high school paper for three years, Garcia ended up at K-State to study journalism. This is how I met him — as assistant news editor, he sat with me while editing my very first story for print. Later on, Garcia became editor-in-chief of the Kansas State Collegian; I was one of his managing editors for a semester.

The Manhattan Mercury, the city’s daily afternoon paper, picked up Garcia as a reporter right away in his final semester. Before he walked the stage at graduation, Garcia covered the city beat. By mid-summer, the education reporter position opened up, so he switched hats.

“I thought, when would I ever get the opportunity to cover my alma mater? It’s not just my alma mater — it’s also K-12 and surrounding education,” he said. “So I tally that up, it’s about 30 different schools.”

Though education is often seen as the heart of a community in smaller Kansas towns, like my hometown of Palco or in a place like Manhattan with a strong collegiate presence, Garcia said his role as an education reporter is becoming a rare thing to see.

“I’ve got one of the last education reporter jobs in the state,” he said. “Even the Wichita Eagle, they no longer have an education reporter. Bigger publications, such as the Kansas City Star, they still have a dedicated person, but it’s a dedicated person covering all education matters in their metro area, K-12 and their higher education. So they are a lot busier than I am.”

 Education reporter Rafael Garcia stands in the Manhattan Mercury lobby in Manhattan, Kan. Behind him: posters of recent 313 Magazine covers, which the staff of the Mercury creates. DENÉ DRYDEN

Before the advent of social media, local press somewhat served as a community bulletin board, detailing upcoming events at schools like open houses, basketball games, band recitals. Now that parents and students can find that information on their school’s Facebook page, Garcia hunts for the stories beyond school board decisions and resigning administrators.

“Something that I did with the university, I wrote a feature on the marching band,” Garcia said. “While the marching band has had a pretty heavy social media presence, there wasn’t anything like a feature directly describing what band camp was like. It’s not necessarily heavyweight journalism there, it’s not holding anybody to account, it’s not featuring some in-depth issue that people need to be aware about. But it is something entertaining … and it does also build that sense of community.

What connects the pre-internet press and today’s reportage more than anything is the neverending story of us, people knowing people through the printed word.

“I think these feature stories humanize what people go through,” Garcia continued. “My favorite stories are those kinds of stories where I can show somebody overcoming some odds or facing some odds but staying optimistic in those scenarios.”

It is that feeling of humanity and knowing how your neighbors are faring that can be unique to smaller-scale, community-focused journalism. When I asked Garcia if he wanted to stay at the local reporting level, he said he wants to continue working as a journalist as long as he can. But factors like low pay and declining reporting positions nationwide could change that.

“I think some of the positions in journalism, they’re just as much about your skill and your drive as it is about luck and who you know, and I do know a few people, but that luck component is going to be a major factor in where I end up even in just five years,” he said. “It might be that, like a lot of other journalists, I end up taking a job outside of journalism like public relations or communications management. I want to be able to make a living, but with journalism where it is, it’s increasingly difficult.”

One hundred sixty miles away in Hutchinson, Schroeder shared similar thoughts.

“I read an article about how the average person goes through 11 different career paths in their lifetime,” Schroeder said. “I’m in one right now. Looking towards the future, it would be cool to stay in one career path, but if the average person goes through 11, then I don’t anticipate staying in one.”

Despite the overall downtrend in U.S. reporting jobs, there are always exceptions to the rule. I found one when I crossed paths with Emma Loura, part-time reporter for the St. Marys Star.

The St. Marys Star is published weekly. DENÉ DRYDEN

A few years ago, Loura’s family transplanted itself from Rhode Island to the Catholic-rooted town of St. Marys, Kansas, home to 2,600 people and St. Mary’s Academy and College. In 2017, her job at a bakery fell through, so she looked for another job. A woman she knew from high school suggested she apply to work for the newspaper. Loura said it didn’t appeal to her at first.

“Journalism? I do more of creative writing, fiction. It sounds boring,” Loura recalled. “But I thought, OK, you know, I’ll take a chance on it. It’s writing, it’s the only place in town that I can find a job writing something. I could probably be good at it. So I applied, and I did end up getting the job.

“It actually did start with a bit of desperation, I have to admit,” she added.

Balancing her part-time position at the St. Marys Star and her K-State classes, Loura typically covered community events and business news. Like Schroeder, Loura does not have an educational background in journalism (she earned an English degree in December), so starting out, she faced learning curves and criticism. St. Marys residents react to Loura’s reporting in different ways — amid the din of other conversations in the campus coffee shop I met Loura in, she told me how negative feedback from readers can affect how she views her work, especially on tight deadlines.

“I’m just perfectionist; I want to make sure that it’s a good article before sending it in,” Loura said. “I had somebody tell me that over the phone, because I asked her a question. She says, ‘Oh, I want nothing to do with the newspaper. Newspapers are dangerous. … By the way, your articles aren’t even that good.’ I just kind of got, like, what if I’m really not as good at my writing?”

But other community members compliment Loura’s work, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the press and local business she sees in St. Marys.

“It’s just keeping everybody informed about what’s going on in town,” she says. “I think it helps the businesses really, because if I write about what’s going on with the business, whether it’s the anniversary, whether it’s remodeling, it brings awareness, so people go check it out themselves.”

I checked it out myself. Days after chatting with Loura, my fiancé and I traveled to St. Marys for the second weekend of its annual Shakespeare Festival. As writers and students who’ve studied the bard, we immersed ourselves in this hodge-podge festival with its Catholic conservations, Americanized foods and Renaissance dress. The core aspect of the festival remained truly Shakespearean: an open-air performance of Twelfth Night, with St. Marys citizens as the actors, pushing and pulling the vernacular sounds of an older English, families watching from their soft seats of blanketed grass.

The festival is wrapped around the love of words, I realized. Words from the woman portraying Maria, gone as soon as they hit the air. Words from William Shakespeare, preserved posthumously. The words we say in greeting, in the exchange of goods, the “One, two, three, cheese!” from the young girls who ran a Polaroid booth.

It’s the words. It’s the stories, the histories. It’s our stories, our histories. Journalists are aggregators, sifters, collectors in their communities, compiling different stories onto a shared page.

As a member of a tight-knit community, Loura might continue collecting stories through her work in the press.

“This is one thing I’ve been considering doing in the future — maybe I could pursue journalism,” Loura said. “Maybe I could move on to a different publication. Because writing doesn’t have to be just me writing fiction, it could also be doing some freelance journalism.”

It’s unclear how American media at large will overcome its financial problems. In the Cascade Review, Don Varyu pinpoints the key cause of newspaper funding decline — as digital outlets for advertising opened up, advertisers began to turn away from print. With smaller revenue streams, newspapers cut back on staff, which limits the scope and depth of their coverage. The effects compound themselves into a downward slide.

For areas at risk of becoming news deserts, there is a glimmer of hope in a recent Knight/Gallup study: Americans are more likely to support their local paper if they know it is at risk of closing. In the study, 86% of percent of Americans say everyone should have access to local news, but only 20% financially supported a local news organization. The value for community-oriented, locally detailed journalism still exists. Teasing out the issue of funding is critical.

Varyu suggests calling upon Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s multi-billionaire CEO and owner of the Washington Post, to fund papers across the nation. But NeimanLab envisions a publicly funded future: A fledgling trend of local governments investing in community press could be how local press perseveres. New Jersey is moving toward this model with a public fund to invest in journalism, enacted by the Civic Info Bill.

Private versus public money garners split opinions from Americans. In that Knight/Gallup study, 60% opposed funding local news through local tax revenues, but nearly half believe small papers should be saved instead of being left to fail.

Either way, local newspapers face the issue of adapting to a changing country. Garcia recognized that small papers are in a tough spot.

“Right now, I don’t think the industry has a clear direction on how it’s going to adapt,” Garcia said. “I hope it’s for the better, but that remains to be seen.”

No matter what direction the future takes, Garcia knows journalism will never die.

“I think journalism is people, and people are stories. As long as there are people, there’s going to be stories to tell and somebody that needs to tell them,” he said.

Local media can focus in on close-to-home stories with an expertise influenced by that community, something national-scope publications can’t do as well. It’s stories like Garcia’s shortest report for the Mercury so far — a brief 80 words about how the city pool closed for the day because someone vomited in it.

“Those are fun,” Garcia said with a smile. “People like to know about that kind of stuff. People click on that stuff. It’s just rare, silly, absurd-type things.”

However, in places where small newspapers have shuttered, Garcia sees where rural flight seeps in.

“When these papers close,” he said, “they’re either parts of the cause or symptoms of overall rural decline, where people are just moving out or young professionals aren’t coming back in. Without that newspaper, it’s hard to have much a community. And when there’s not a sense of community, that’s when the towns, especially these small communities that rely on those connections, that’s when they start to fall apart.”

The community of Hutchinson is fighting the flight, a sentiment that is close to Schroeder’s heart. Though she is open to career paths beyond journalism, she pointed out a newspaper clipping pinned to the corkboard by her desk, an opinion column she penned titled “High Hopes for Hutch.”

“Hutch was hit very hard by the recession in 2008. A lot of jobs were lost, a lot of businesses closed down. People who live here, who lived here for a long time, remember how nice it was. … I don’t remember that, I wasn’t here. I moved here in August of 2018. I think it’s great,” she said with a laugh.

Schroeder smiled, listing out all the moving parts in Hutchinson’s thriving art scene: the art center, the symphony, the community theater. “If you literally just go outside and look for it, you can find it.

“So there is this grassroots effort here Hutch of people saying, ‘Step outside and look around at what a great town this is.’ And I’m one of them,” she continued, seeing her role as a community reporter as part of that revival.

Stories change — people move and grow, ecosystems deteriorate and birth new lands, businesses fold and successors emerge in those empty husks. Publications are just as subject to this change as anything else, with finances and staff in flux year by year. In a changing rural landscape, in the eyes of Kansans, stories are still there, important and resonant. The responsibility for preserving those tales is shifting to the 20-somethings like Loura, Schroeder and Garcia. These folks want to stay in journalism, but the futures of their community papers and their personal career paths are stories not yet on the page.

Emma Loura sits in the Radina’s Coffeehouse at the Kansas State University Student Union. She graduated in December 2019. DENÉ DRYDEN

Yet storytelling has staying power. It’s a basic service that communities demand.

“The value of community journalism is that it creates a better community on the whole; it’s one piece of that puzzle in order to create a healthy community,” Schroeder said.

The story of how the United States preserves local publications in a changing digital landscape is still in progress. For now, Loura, Schroeder and Garcia keep their practice alive, intimately listening for clues, transcribing stories first through their minds, then through the press on a ribbon of paper. Black ink first, then the pure colors, slick and bright on the sheet.


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