That big-city job isn’t the only place you can thrive

December 4, 2019
Category: Business & Work

Editor’s note: This piece was adapted from a talk the author gave at Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media. It was also published in Local Edition, our weekly newsletter on local news.

 

When I meet people — especially other journalists — I sometimes cringe when it comes time to tell them about my job.

“I’m editor of a weekly newspaper in Iowa.”

“You’ve probably never heard of it.”

“Iowa Falls.”

“5,000 people.”

“But I really like it! It’s not like other weekly papers! And we do cool stuff!”

That last part is me answering what I assume is the judgment in their mind about me not having a better job at a bigger organization.

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, professors and peers (heck, even my parents) asked me what I wanted to do with my degree. I developed a very specific answer: I wanted to be a political reporter at a large daily newspaper. Political reporting is a serious job, and large daily newspapers do important work. When I shared my plan, people seemed impressed. So that became my mantra. And it became my measure of success. New York Times, here I come!

Sara K. Baranowski, center, with actor Hugh Jackman, who was in Iowa Falls in September 2013 to celebrate the reopening of the town’s historical theater, which was bought and refurbished by Jackman’s agent, Patrick Whitesell, and Whitesell’s father, Jack Whitesell, of Iowa Falls. The Times Citizen covered the red carpet event. (Submitted photo)

It didn’t take me long to divert from the path I’d set for myself. After graduate school, I was hired by a small daily newspaper, and learned fairly quickly that corporate ownership wasn’t for me. I was a cog in a big machine whose values didn’t align with my own. What was important to the organization seemed trivial to me. When a job opened at the twice-weekly Iowa Falls Times Citizen in a small town down the highway, I was intrigued. The company was family-owned and, in addition to owning two local newspapers, it also operated a small radio station. In my new role I’d have two jobs: radio news director and newspaper reporter. It was on-the-job training in a skill that interested me. And I’d have a back-up plan. If The New York Times thing didn’t pan out, I’d have NPR to fall back on.

I accepted the job and told myself I’d only be sidelined there a year—- two tops — before getting back on track and heading to the big league. But 13 years later, I’m still at that small-town newspaper.

So what happened?

For one, I got a taste of the real world. The goal I set for myself in graduate school was based on inexperience and the influence of professors who never spoke about weekly newspapers as a worthy place to spend a career. I believed that a job at any publication less than the Chicago Tribune or the LA Times was failure. I wasn’t exposed to the incredible work that’s done by journalists at small newspapers in unheard of places.

But more importantly, I learned that I had to define success for myself. Whereas before I thought of success as a big job at a big newspaper in a big city, now it’s something different: an important job at a small town’s only newspaper in a community that’s come to mean a lot to me.

Pursuing other people’s definition of success — at The New York Times or any other national publication — probably would not have made me happy. The very little time I spent as a small part of a big organization left me feeling powerless and unhappy.

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review (“Are You Pursuing Your Vision of Career Success – Or Someone Else’s?”), Laura Gassner Otting put into words what I believe. She writes that when we follow the steps to achieve someone else’s definition of success, we fail to achieve consonance.

She wrote: “Consonance is when what you do matches who you are (or who you want to be). You achieve consonance when your work has purpose and meaning for you.”

Consonance for me is making a difference in a community through my work. I do that by providing information and telling people’s stories, ultimately making it a better place for everyone — and having control over what I do and how I do it.

With all of that sorted out, it’s just wall-to-wall career confidence, right?

I wish it was that easy.

I sometimes still feel embarrassed when I introduce myself. Or jealous when a friend announces her fancy new job. At least once a month I wonder if I’m staying at a rural weekly newspaper just because it’s comfortable and safe. Am I wasting my time, my talents, my career?!?

I’m happy here. I’m still growing in this position. And I’ve achieved success, even in the conventional sense. I’ve won awards for my reporting (an investigative piece that revealed public officials weren’t keeping minutes of their public meetings, a series about a U.S. military translator who escaped from the Taliban to Iowa Falls, and a slideshow about a summer nature camp), I’ve been invited to speak at journalism conferences (including ONA and SRCCON), and I was accepted to Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media (and returned this fall as visiting faculty) — all measures of success by most objective standards. When those aren’t enough, I turn to the contents of my “Good Stuff” folder. That’s where I keep the cards, handwritten notes and heartfelt emails I’ve received in response to my work. What I do affects people in a positive way. My work makes this place better.

But nothing is forever. Just as my interests change, so does my measure of success, and my definition of consonance. That’s why it’s important to do regular check-ins. Does what I’m doing still give me a sense of satisfaction? Is there someplace I’d rather be, something I’d rather do?

Today, those answers tell me I’m in the right place. But they may change. And I’m open to that. As long as I’m answering the questions for me.

So let me reintroduce myself: I’m Sara. I’m editor of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen. It’s an incredible job in a great town. And I’m proud of it.

 

Sara K. Baranowski is the editor of the (Iowa Falls, Iowa) Times Citizen. She can be reached on Twitter at @skonradb.

Comments

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  • My first newspaper job was at a small-ish daily, 65,000 on a sunny day with a tailwind, in New Brunswick, NJ, where I covered small towns, state government, politics and more.
    I had bigger jobs at larger dailies in NJ and South Florida before transforming myself into a journalism professor. In many ways that first job was the best.
    It was up close and personal. I’d run into the people I covered at the supermarket or local clubs. It taught me how much power we have, to be really careful and I did work that made a difference.
    I tell my students that small is a good way to start and some of them do.
    You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about, Sara. Just keep on keeping on.

  • Cheers to this, Sara! As an editor at a weekly in Bend, Oregon, I can very much relate to this. It’s been incredibly gratifying and productive for me to work at a family-owned paper that believes in community newspapers and invests in the community in many ways… and invests in me too. Hope to meet you sometime once I get into that Women in Leadership program myself!

  • Nice piece, Sara! Thank you!

  • There’s a great deal of personal satisfaction to be had from serving a smaller community. But it’s very difficult to make that commitment when you’ve grown up in a larger city and, as a result, have big-city news judgement.