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Stephanie Wilcox.

Community journalist learns lifelong lessons

(This is part of an ongoing series of column from writers, past and present, associated with Town Times in celebration of the newspaper’s 20 years of publication.)

Heading into my freshmen year at the University of Connecticut in 2004, I had no idea what to study. But I loved two things: writing and sharing stories. Early in my freshmen year I found myself reporting for the campus newspaper, and surprisingly I loved it. That’s when it all came together: I’d be a journalist.

For the remainder of my undergrad, I took every opportunity to prepare for a successful journalism career. I reached out to magazine editors to ask how I could work toward their jobs, I took multiple internships to sample various journalism fields, I was selected to tape a Public Service Announcement with journalist Katie Couric and then-governor Jodi Rell, and I hosted a television show through UConn’s broadcast club. When all this experience and four years of education came to a head in 2008, I knew deep within my core that I was going to be a magazine editor in NYC. That’s what my (near) future had in store for me, or so I thought. I was immensely driven, but I still felt very small - a little fish who was going to try to make it in a big sea - the magazine industry.

After graduation, I applied my heart out all summer. I didn’t even know how realistic it was to apply some of the positions, but I figured my eagerness alone would help me skip over the lower level positions as an assistant pouring coffee and bump me right into my dream job of running the show. To my disappointment, no magazine jobs came through for me, though I didn’t want to believe it could have something to do with the fact that I was reaching a tad too high. So I did what any writer would do – I wrote about the situation at hand. “Paycheck or Reality Check” was sent off to a few papers in Connecticut, including the paper in my hometown, Town Times.

Over the years, I had picked up the hometown paper to read the letters, see photos of community events and read small blurbs about my school, but small-town news did not excite me much. Even so, any writer knows the excitement of getting a call from an editor, and sure enough I will never forget the call from then-editor Sue VanDerzee upon receiving my submission. She said two things that have stuck with me and changed my life: that my article was “terrific” and she would publish it, and that she wanted me to come in for an interview because the reporter at the time was leaving. I loved Sue from that very instant and could tell in her cheerful voice that she was a person who could both support and push me, though in that moment I didn’t know what my future at the paper would hold. That phone call was fate. I wasn’t even trying to get a job there, but this one practically fell on my lap. (Thank you, Wendy, for spotting my email submission out of the hundreds received daily and for sharing it with Sue.)

I was so excited to have my article published that I grabbed several copies of the paper that week and have kept them to this day. (Newspapers grow more charming with age as their pages turn yellow and crispy.) In fact, every article I ever wrote for the five years I was at Town Times is in a pile under my bed. A few years ago, I started to compile every clip into a binder, but it was a difficult task that quickly got tossed aside. That’s because I had more clips than I realized – hundreds, including small blurbs. Sue had me working my butt off to earn those bylines.

But if I’m being completely honest, I should back up and say that at first I had felt a little sorry for myself. I was “settling” for a job at my local newspaper rather than pursuing the glamorous work of magazine editing I had envisioned so vividly. But eventually I came to realize that I was given so much more than a job, a byline and a little experience at Town Times. I was given a small pond and the permission to be the big fish, and that was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

Every week I stretched my limits beyond what I thought I was capable of. Want to grow a little chutzpa? Write for a weekly newspaper covering the pulse of the community. People get to know you more than you want them to, and you learn more than you ever thought you’d care about the people, places and things that make it all tick. But I also learned how to listen carefully, how to calculate mill rates, how to represent the community, how to have a voice and a presence, how to carefully craft someone else’s story that they’ve trusted you with, how to capture the front-page-worthy photos and how to read body language. In a nutshell, you learn as a journalist to be in tune with the world around you, right down to the tiniest detail, and I was no exception. I think all journalists, at least those working for publications small enough where they can really get involved in the heart of the community, know that the interesting thing about our work is being so immersed in it and yet knowing how and when to remove ourselves and how and when not to. And I am so thankful I was given this experience to learn that at Town Times. And within it all, I got to do my two loves: write and tell stories to an audience, whether anyone ever read a single word I wrote or not.

When Sue retired, I became editor which is a whole other exciting piece of this story. To this day I say that I can live happily for the rest of my life knowing I fulfilled my dream of being an editor, in one capacity or another. I’m no longer in journalism as a career, in fact I didn’t end up using my experience from Town Times to help launch my career in the magazine world after all (although I am co-founder/co-editor of an online magazine, Positively Smitten, with a fellow used-to-be-wanna-be-magazine-editor-friend who worked for The Plainville Citizen, a sister publication).

Even so, it was those few precious years as a young reporter, when Sue had me covering 8 a.m. school assemblies and 8 p.m. budget hearings and everything in between, that I really learned what I was made of. I will forever be pleased with myself for writing “Paycheck or Reality Check” and forever grateful for that chapter of my life.



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