Working at a small-town newspaper does have certain similarities to working anywhere else, but the differences are enough to make your feelings towards your job hit the extreme end of the emotional spectrum. Whether that end is the fuzzy love end or the seeing-red hate end depends on your patience, tolerance, and speed in life.
To start off with, there’s usually an interview or job application of some sort, just like with any other job. Or not, depending on how small the newspaper really is and what they usually print. If they stick to stories about grandmother’s cookies and where Mr. Johnson went on vacation, you’ll probably be given an assignment right after you’ve introduced yourself. Of course, that means the likelihood of getting paid is rather slim.
If the company is slightly bigger than that, your chances of getting paid for something you write are better. Just don’t expect to get rich. Ever. And keep your eye out for anything that might make your job any more unstable than it is already. When belts are being tightened at a small newspaper, writers are among the first to go.
If your plan is to work your way up the ladder of journalism, and if you already have or are right now taking some college courses, working at a small newspaper is a great way to get started. You can cut your teeth on a few “puff pieces” and then move on to covering local meetings and events. If writing is what you want to do with your career, you’ll have to work long and hard at it to get anywhere, so you may as well get started. If you’re more interested in the business aspect of newspapers, it’s still a good idea to start at the bottom and learn how things are done. If you’re going to be working at a small newspaper, that’s what you’re going to be doing anyway.
Much like in any other type of small business, everyone at a small newspaper does a little bit of everything. Even the owner is usually right there in the trenches, answering phones and running errands. A big staff is not in the budget, and this can be both good and bad. If you’re patient and tolerant and willing to learn how to do several different jobs at the same time, you’ll fit right in. If you prefer a work environment where your job requirements are specifically laid out in your contract, you’d better start shopping your resume around elsewhere.
You might start out as a lowly reporter and work your way up to office grunt. If you’re a hard worker, you’ll find yourself saddled with more and more responsibilities as time goes by. Knowing how to do some editing and proofreading is good for any reporter, but you may also find yourself learning the ins and outs of layout. They don’t use typesetters anymore, but it’s still a time-consuming job. Since it’s all done on computers now, not being technology-savvy can be a journalistic career-killer, whether you’re just writing or hoping to learn the design end of the business.
Knowing how to deal with people and with their complaints is a must. Customer service is everyone’s job at a small newspaper. Since everyone does everything, whoever is closest to the front door when someone walks in is usually responsible for taking care of him or her. Sometimes, this means apologizing for mistakes that have nothing to do with your area of expertise. In many cases, this will also give you a chance to learn about the sales side of the industry. Some people will walk in or call with their request to put in a classified or display ad. In fact, sometimes, if it’s a slow day (and a slow financial cycle), you may find yourself on assignment to make cold calls until you get a sale.
In the low-profit business of putting out a small-town newspaper, you quickly learn the importance of advertising. Money from sales is what allows you to get a paycheck, assuming you’re writing or doing something that is considered worth paying for. Subscriptions do not pay the bills at a small paper; there simply aren’t enough of them. Because of this, readers are often considered less important to cater to than advertisers. If it bothers you when this affects journalistic objectivity, you’re in the wrong line of work.
No job at a small newspaper is higher or lower in status than any other. The biggest difference is in the job of editor. In theory, an editor is supposed to be the boss, making decisions about deadlines and headlines and barking orders at the reporters and the people in layout. In practice, the editor often has the least amount of control and the most responsibility. Whatever goes wrong, it’s the editor’s fault. This high-stress position is not for the faint of heart, especially if it is different from the position of owner. Most owners of small newspapers double as the editor. This is a good thing in one important way: It prevents conflicts between the two of them. If you’re a small-picture kind of person and don’t do well in conflicts, editing is not a job you want.
If you enjoy meeting deadlines and multitasking, the small newspaper business may be just right for you. In this world of ever-increasing specialization, this industry is one of the last bastions of the practice of teaching employees a business from the ground up. If you love writing about small-town people and don’t mind living from paycheck to paycheck, you’ll do well as a small-town reporter.
But if you prefer things to be more well-organized and want a guarantee that what you’re doing will still be considered important next year, you’re better off working somewhere else. You’ll likely hate the fast-paced environment of the small newspaper, especially since a quick loss in advertising for the company can mean a quick loss in hours or even employment for you. Such work is definitely not for everyone.