30-odd years in local news

One of the things I always liked about my various jobs in journalism was the variety. Every day was different. You never knew who would walk in the door with a story. However, all of this amazing richness was hung on a remarkably stable framework of a year.

Hmm — it’s January. Must be time to write about Grand Lists, those documents which detail the taxable property in each town in Connecticut. This is important to write about — and for citizens to understand — because it underlies town budgets, which affect money available for schools and other services. If the Grand List goes up (ie., there is more taxable property in town), then the same tax rate raises more money. Local governments, of course, really like this, which is why competition for businesses to locate within their borders is so hot among towns.

Then it’s February – and Valentine’s Day. This is a month for feature stories. Will you find one or several long-married couples to interview about their successful relationships? Will you do an Inquiring Photographer asking how to tell if you’re in love? Will your advertising salesperson call on all the restaurants and florists in the area? The ways to talk about romance are practically endless…

March is a tough one. Everyone is sick of winter, but it’s not always ready to go away. Town budget deliberations are ongoing, but all of the reporters, or more usually, the reporter, is sick of them, but hey, there’s always St. Patrick’s Day. Quick, go find an Irish person, or a person who has been to Ireland…

April gets easier. It really is spring so there’s spring cleaning, gardening and usually Easter/Passover to focus on. There’s plenty to write about, and the ad rep is busy calling local landscapers and house cleaners. It’s also Earth Day, and so environmental concerns can be showcased, and there are plenty of them, from clean roadsides to use of pesticides, from energy conservation to global climate change. Towards the end of the month, town budgets rear their heads again as town meetings or referendums to vote on them are scheduled early in May in our towns. And, of course, there’s Little League.

In May, there’s that big budget question again – a last chance to explain it and then to report on what happens if it goes up or down. In Durham and Middlefield, there are two ups and downs to consider. Town budgets are almost always passed easily, but not so the regional school district budget which binds our communities. Almost always, one town defeats the school budget and one passes it, which makes margin of defeat or passage very important. When we first came to Durham in 1989, it was typically Durham that would defeat school budgets with Middlefield coming to the “rescue.” In the last decade or so, that relationship has switched.

Also at town meetings in May, representatives to the District 13 Regional Board of Education and Durham Middlefield Interlocal Agreement Advisory Board (DMIAAB, which manages the transfer station shared by the town) are elected. That used to be and sometimes still is, a perfunctory exercise, but often enough in the recent past, there have been some hot contests for board of education. In May, there are always opportunities for interesting reporting plus plenty of photo opportunities at the annual Memorial Day parade and the Exchange Club’s Washington Trail 5K race.

If it’s June, we must be getting on to graduation and the beginning of summer. Graduation is a big deal. It can get that “not that again” feeling to it until you arrive at the actual site, and some speaker says something surprising or enchanting, and there we go again. It’s the same, but totally different, as is each graduating class. Summer plans, beginning of summer, number of snow days tacked on to the end of the month, end of the town budget year – all add to June’s newsworthiness.

In July, we get to report on how the towns actually ended their fiscal years, and we get to begin “summer reporting” on gardens, the farmers market and local farms, trips one might take, fun local things to do. It’s time to visit local recreation programs, parks and the weekly farm market with a camera. Photos take up a larger share of space in the newspaper in July.

August really slows down. Most town boards and commissions take a holiday – well-deserved because, under our system, these are all volunteers – but that makes it necessary to find more features and press reporters to write on some agreed-upon summer topic. Then midway through the month, the pace shifts – it’s back to school. Editors breathe a sigh of relief.

September is school, school and more school – and THE DURHAM FAIR. Oh my goodness, nowhere else do I know about where a single event is so all-encompassing of a whole community’s psyche. There is a lot to write about the Durham Fair. September takes care of itself.

October is Durham Fair photos, leaf photos, regular local government activities and putting the garden to bed. Got that, ad rep, call all the landscapers again please. And some years, October is covering-local-elections month. No shortage of news in October.

In November, we’re near the end of the year, a time to report on elections and the plans of those who were elected, a time to be grateful, a time to talk about food and recipes and what the holidays might begin to look like.

December is the holidays, and feature opportunities abound to explore the passions of folks who put the love in the season and to help bolster local economies by urging support and showcasing local business. And, of course, it’s time to think about how to end the year. Often in Town Times’ early days, co-founder and art director Marilyn Keurajian would conjure up a collage of photos from the year passed for the first front page of the new year. Sometimes we collaged headlines. Once or twice we used just one evocative photo. Some newspapers do a year in review, but that’s a very labor intense project, and we never seemed to have time to do it justice, plus this editor was never convinced that it was the best use of space, so we used our entrée into your homes to bring you the creative work of your friends, neighbors and local children. We enjoyed that use of our space.

So this is the skeleton of an editor’s year, but the miracle of an editor’s life is that each year, like each person, is clothed in astonishing and varied detail. But that’s a theme for another column to come.

Sue VanDerzee is co-founder and a former editor of Town Times.



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