December 22, 2016

In the summer of 2015, I left Washington, D.C. and moved to Carrboro, population 19,582, in the middle of North Carolina. I had never lived in the South before, or in a small town. Most of my life had been spent along the Acela corridor, in Philadelphia and New York and Boston and Hartford, Connecticut.

I thought we would stay a year, maybe two.

This summer, we bought a house here. We plan to raise children here, and work here, and stay a good long while. And to be honest, I think moving to a small town has made me a better journalist. I see story ideas everywhere I turn, and I talk to many people who aren’t journalists (which is a great way to hear what kinds of stories resonate and how to tell a good story in a way that makes sense).

I’ve also learned (or confirmed) a few other things that I thought I’d pass along. If you live in a smaller market, you probably already know this stuff. If not, here are some lessons from a newish small-town journalist who has no plans to leave.

1. Your masthead should include people who live outside of the Boston to D.C. corridor.

As I wrote in a column earlier this year, “We have tools now for remote meetings and remote document collaboration and remote project management. Why does your entire masthead live in New York or D.C.?

There’s simply no need for this in 2016, and having different perspectives on an ongoing basis will diversify coverage and the way we write about our sources.” There are lots of really smart reporters and editors here. They see stories differently. They have different perspectives. They understood the election in different ways because they live in different parts of the country.

As Heather Bryant puts it, “These reporters exist. You just didn’t pay any attention to them the same way you didn’t listen to rural America. Because they weren’t in the bigger cities and they weren’t in prestige newsrooms. Many of them don’t even have journalism degrees.”

2. Better yet, start a national newsroom from outside of a major city.

It’s cheaper. The commute is better, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t still have a few reporters in D.C. or N.Y. covering those areas. What would a national newsroom feel like if the majority of its staff lived in the middle of North Carolina?

How do you localize coverage? How do you nationalize it? How do you write a story about a place so that people are interested no matter where they live? How does a politics story change if its editor lives in Lansing, Michigan or Alamance County, North Carolina or Jacksonville, Florida? What nuances do they bring?

3. Not everyone in a smaller market wants to move to a bigger market. Most of the journalists I know here don’t.

People move to different parts of the country for all sorts of reasons, and people stay in different parts of the country for all sorts of reasons. There are ridiculously good journalists living in smaller markets across the country who aren’t living there to pay their dues.

Some of them don’t want to live in a bigger city, or live in certain places because of their family circumstances or financial circumstances or simply because they like where they live. They may or may not be connected to the conference circuit because if they’re at a conference, that means no one is doing a really vital job in their newsrooms. They may or may not be able to afford expensive awards submissions. That has no bearing whatsoever on their reporting.

4. That also means people may stay at jobs longer or make ends meet in a variety of different ways or may weave in and out of journalism more frequently.

I know journalists who know lots of different types of people and can dig into lots of different story ideas, who bring different perspectives to the newsroom. I also know more people who have a day job in one field and do journalism on the side because they see it as their calling.

5. Local journalists cover stories differently than national journalists.

Over the past year, I examined how local journalists cover stories in Wyoming and Vermont and in Iowa during the caucuses. Now that I live in NC, it’s even more apparent how different coverage is between the national publications and the local reporters who live at the statehouse.

You want to follow what’s going on in North Carolina lately? You want to follow Colin Campbell, Craig Jarvis, Joe Killian and Lauren Horsch. Or, you want to pick up their stories for your publication.

6. In a smaller market, you’re closer to the people you cover.

Small-town living means seeing the mayor at the supermarket and walking in the Fourth of July parade with the town alderman. This can be both a good and bad thing. You’re embedded in the community so you have a sense of context and nuance that other reporters may not, but you’re embedded in the community — so you have social relationships alongside journalism responsibilities.

7. It’s really great to have a social circle that mainly consists of people who aren’t journalists.

The biggest change I noticed from D.C. to N.C. was that whole conversations take place here without any mention of work. This is great from a self-care standpoint, but also really great when work does come up.

Chatting with friends who consume the news in entirely different ways has helped me think of story ideas, and new ways to tell stories, and new perspectives to tell. Sure, I did this in D.C. and New York — but it’s much easier to find people who aren’t journalists or one degree removed from journalists here.

8. States aren’t black and white.

I will freely admit that my perception of North Carolina before moving here was completely different than the way I feel about my state now. It can be easy to find stories that confirm stereotypes of different states; it’s harder to find other kinds of stories unless you live here.

And if you happen to be swinging through my state, feel free to say hello. It’s always great to show people from outside of N.C. how much I enjoy living here.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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