I walked into the North Ballroom at the Walt Disney Hilton in Orlando for my first session at the Florida Press Association conference and was stunned.
I was, by far, the youngest person there. As a 21 year old, I felt as though I was playing dress up in my suit worn for the first time since leaving D.C. in December. There wasn’t even anyone in their late twenties or early thirties. I tried desperately to not feel out of place and chose to sit towards the back, furiously taking notes.
How exactly have I landed a job as an editor of a weekly newspaper in a bedroom community of Tampa Bay, the fastest growing urban area in Florida? Well, I like to call it divine appointment; others would point to the industry’s struggles: shrinking newsholes, shrinking staffs and the ensuing desperation.
I was hired as a reporter less than a month after graduating from college.
I showed up for my first day. I was nervous. After all, my limited reporting experience had left the idea of community journalism a bit vague. What exactly was I supposed to do?
Within ten minutes on that first day, I was informed that the managing editor had turned in their two weeks notice. As I was the only full time reporter, I would assume the position. I’m pretty certain that I had one of those Victorian style episodes. “Vapors,” I think they’re called. I spent those two weeks asking every question I could think of, memorizing the AP Stylebook, relying on sleeping pills to rest at night and praying. I did lots of praying.
I have now been the editor of the hometown newspaper in Zephyrhills, Florida for six months. Known for its seasonal tourism industry, the population almost triples when the snowbirds arrive from regions north in September and October. A mass exodus occurs the first of April. The city is most certainly unique, a mixture of shuffleboard clubs, lots of dramatic, ridiculous crimes, the famed springs from which water is packed and shipped across the country and economic growth that is likely to explode as soon as the economy gets back on its feet.
And it is small. The social network of Zephyrhills is a tangled web of history. Every week it seems I get wrapped up in some new mess of sordid tales, grudges and hushed gossip.
Since moving into the position, I have been told that I’m heartless and that I obviously don’t care about children. I’ve been told that my newspaper is nothing but a tabloid gossip paper with a leaning toward the youth. Others have complained that I spend too much time reporting events and stories that only old people care about. I have angered former school principals, mothers, city council candidates and three troops of girl scouts. Apparently, many of the residents refer to the News as the “mullet wrapper,” good only for wrapping up fish to be smoked in an age-old southern tradition. I have received relentless teasing since the day a front-page headline read “Three-vehicle crash stop straffic on Eiland.”
I am the reporter, photographer, and copy editor. I sell classifieds and subscriptions. I help with the design of the paper, assign stories to the other reporters and spend my weekends listening to a police scanner. It’s a challenge everyday to get everything that needs to be done, but I have survived.
There have been successes along the way. My first special advertising section, a series of articles about the history of Zephyrhills, was described to me as “masterful.” Paper sales in boxes that line the streets have risen. A gas station that used to sell six papers sold 50 last week. This week, I had a family buy 20 copies because of an article I wrote. Our paper now has a Myspace profile –– a constant source of story ideas.
As I looked around the room in Orlando two weeks ago, I sat up a little straighter and stopped hiding my face. I may have been the youngest editor in the room. I may be the editor of the “mullet wrapper,” but I have decided to heed Paul’s words to another youth in a position of authority.
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.”
During one of the sessions, Florida’s elite editors and publishers talked about how they followed their interns around, hoping to absorb information about the future of the industry. Editors admitted they allowed interns to make decisions in the newsroom. They were observing the interns’ instincts, hoping to find the answer for survival in the kids’ fluid use of technology and social networking.
Experience may not be on my side, but my youth certainly is.