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A lesson in beginning journalism

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I began my career in journalism at a small weekly newspaper in central Kansas in a town about as far removed from metro Atlanta as Neptune.

Yet, the lessons learned in that first job have served me well over the 40 years and three newspapers I’ve worked for since.

The first big election I covered was in 1980. Marion Mayor Peggy Blackmon was running for re-election along with a handful of city council members and one county commissioner.

Oh, and so was Jimmy Carter.

On election night, along with my regular reporting, I was stringing for AP. I used a payphone to call the wire desk with the local results. No surprise. In Alf Landon’s Kansas, Reagan walloped Carter.

Later, I headed from the courthouse to the office to file my story for the weekly. It was right across the street, so I wasn’t winded.

My story began: “Ronald Reagan soundly defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter Tuesday night, capturing 75 percent of the Marion County vote.”

I went on to describe Reagan’s landslide victory across the rest of the country, then moved on to the local mayor’s race and subsequent city and county races.

When my editor and publisher, a gentleman by the name of Bill Meyer, sat down to edit my story, he deleted the first four paragraphs without blinking.

“We publish Thursday,” he said. “By then, everyone will know who won the presidency. What they may not know is who their mayor is.”

I was furious, and I let him know it.

He explained, with a lot more patience than I deserved, that in small-town publishing, there’s nothing more important than local news. The newspaper’s job, he said, is to guard the readers, watch their backs, watch their taxes, follow their interests, find and report the things that affect their lives.

As it turned out, as popular and as influential as Ronald Reagan turned out, he was no Peggy Blackman – not to the residents of Marion, Kansas. And Bill Meyer was more influential still.

I think of him these days when the world is reeling from a hurricane virus that has no truck with sympathy. I think of him when laws are enacted that cast shadows over civil liberties and limit a wide swath of the business community.

It’s a national story, yes. But it’s a story in our backyard.

That’s why we work so hard, shaking the bushes for local details, local information.

It’s here. It always has been.

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