By: Joe Grimm
An E&P Special Report: Career Guide
Big newspapers get most of the attention in the job market, but they are the smallest slice of the newspaper pie.
How exceptional are big newspapers? Well, how many newspapers do you think have circulations of more than 100,000? Half of them? A quarter? One in five?
Try about one in 15. Of the nation’s 1,480 dailies, about a hundred have circulations over 100,000. More than 90% are smaller than 100,000 daily, and 1,200 are less than half that size.
Serious job-seekers need to know the newspaper business from the ground up, and that’s the way small newspapers teach it. In fact, that’s one of the big selling points for small papers.
At small papers, people can learn a lot, make their mark quickly, and commit their inevitable mistakes quietly. For some, small newspapers are the only realistic way to break in. For many, small newspapers are where they want to spend their careers.
At an October job fair hosted by the University of Missouri-Columbia, Tom McDonald, city editor at the Conway, Ark., Log Cabin Democrat, set up shop to recruit, laying out his literature, mouse pads, water bottles, and refrigerator magnets. To the left of him was the Chicago Tribune; to the right, The Philadelphia Inquirer. How in the world can the flyweight Log Cabin Democrat, circulation 10,418, stay in the ring with heavyweights like those?
‘The smaller the paper,’ said McDonald, ‘the more likely you’re going to do a variety of things. One day you may be covering the school board, the next day you’re writing a feature column, and the next day you’re doing a homicide or something else out of the cop shop.’ At larger papers, he said, people don’t get that kind of opportunity.
He talks up the experience, too.
‘We cover a lot of small towns out in the county, which is great training for government news,’ said McDonald. ‘That’s grass-roots, democratic process in action. A feisty mayor and an ornery council can really bring it close to home.’
McDonald started his newspaper career at a 1,500-circulation weekly, where he did virtually everything except cross the line into advertising. ‘We made deadline on Tuesday and I threw papers on Wednesday,’ he said. After a few years at the weekly, McDonald moved to the Log Cabin Democrat and its staff of about 20. In six years, he has moved from reporter to regional editor to city editor, supervising a staff of four full-time reporters and a network of correspondents and stringers.
‘It’s not uncommon for us to hire people straight out of college, especially if they have a working relationship with us.’ And what can they expect? ‘Pretty much on a daily basis, you’ll have a bylined story, and half of those will go on the front page,’ he said. In addition to having fewer competitors on staff, journalists at small papers usually find that local news has a higher priority than it does at most large papers, so there is less chance of getting elbowed off Page One by wire stories.
The Internet, said McDonald, has evened the odds for small papers. ‘You can have a little, bitty paper with a hell of a Web site,’ he said. ‘We have one of the best – if not the best – in the state of Arkansas.’ (You can check it out at http://www.thecabin.net.)
To many job-seekers, though, the Democrat and other papers in that circulation strata are unknowns.
Executive Editor Bill Felber tells of candidates who have said they were interested in his Manhattan Mercury because they want to get to New York. That’s nice, but it’s still a 29-hour bus ride from Manhattan, Kan., where the 10,591-circulation Mercury is located, to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a block away from New York’s famed Times Square.
Don’t laugh at this sort of geographic gaffe, though. Small papers such as the Mercury really can offer faster routes than the direct approach to the big city.
Bruno Navarro was beating his head against the New York newspaper market in 1993, and the only dents he was making were in his confidence. Frustrated, he declared he would go anywhere to get started – and he did. The next two years found him far from home, reporting for the Grand Forks Herald, a 36,018-circulation paper in North Dakota that took a chance on the one-
time ambulance driver from Queens. From Grand Forks, Navarro went to the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press for about a year and a half. Then he moved back to the small circuit. Today, Navarro is editing copy, designing pages, and editing the weekly Spanish-language page at The Santa Fe New Mexican (circulation 24,453).
Navarro said, ‘I’m learning the principles of page design and headline writing and editing. I’m probably a lot happier here than if I had never left New York.’ And what about getting back to New York? ‘I still want to do it,’ he said, but, as for working in Santa Fe right now, ‘I like it a bunch.’
Twenty-seven years ago and just out of high school, Gloria Turner joined The Joplin (Mo.) Globe as a clerk. She pitched in on obits, rewrites, and copy editing. Today, she is managing editor of the 35,216-circulation Globe and its newsroom staff of about 40. She did not have to wait until she was a boss to have power, though. ‘Every voice is heard in a small newsroom,’ she said.
Recruiting at the recent University of Missouri job fair, she said small papers have ‘more of a family atmosphere, and the doors are open throughout the building.’
The career world also can spin faster at Joplin’s Globe than, say, Boston’s. She cited Mark Wardlow, who in five years has moved from English student and part-time clerk to assistant design editor. He now runs the night pagination and design desk.
Turner concedes that Globe paychecks, like those at many small papers, can’t compete with what large papers offer. So she talks up career growth, great benefits, and a quality of life that big cities simply don’t have.
While Turner has stayed at one newspaper to work her way to the top, David Kraemer has done it by working through a series of small papers. He said that small newspapers have helped him land ‘the best job in journalism’: executive editor. At Iowa’s 18,034-circulation Ottumwa Courier, he said, ‘I get to write when I want to, mess around in other people’s stories when I want to, and get out in the community when I want to.’
What if you’re not the executive editor? Then what do small newspapers offer? Two things, said Kraemer – becoming part of a network, such as the one that he climbed, and quality of experience.
Kraemer spent seven years in La Crosse, Wis., before moving to Racine, Wis., for three more on his way to Ottumwa and the editor’s chair.
And the experience? Unbeatable. ‘Somebody who comes to a newspaper like ours, even up to 20,000 or 30,000, will be plugged into the newsroom in a way they won’t at a large newspaper. You get to see the newspaper front to back.’
Joe Grimm (firstname.lastname@example.org) is recruiting and development editor at the Detroit Free Press.
(c) Copyright 1999, Editor & Publisher