Katie Novak sees the good and bad in small town newspapers
By Jacob Bryant
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Working for a small town newspaper means owning up to the mistakes you make.
Katie Novak, weekly news editor of the Burt County Plaindealer, stresses that over all else. It’s especially important in a small town, where readers have a close relationship with their local newspaper.
Novak said aspiring journalism editors “must also develop a slightly thicker skin. Not everyone will like all their stories, and some people or boards may throw the newspaper/reporter under the bus. It’s easier to blame someone else than take responsibility for your own mistakes.”
Novak began her career in journalism while in college. She held many jobs at Wayne State College’s school paper, the Wayne Stater. She also wrote for the Laurel Advocate but a 21-credit hour semester and her determination to graduate in four years forced her to stop writing there after three months. After graduation, she received many out-of-state offers but because she’d just had major surgery, she wanted to stay close to her supportive family. She became a reporter at the Plaindealer in Tekamah, Neb.
Tekamah, a place Novak now calls home, very much models that classic “Cheers” motto, “where everybody knows your name.” Novak said that is both a blessing and a curse if you are the editor of the paper.
“Journalists in smaller papers can become more rounded because they do every job: interviewing, writing, photography, video shooting and editing, layout, etc,” she said. “Employees at larger papers don’t have those opportunities.”
Being well-rounded is a very good thing in Novak’s eyes. That’s especially true with the changes occurring in journalism in today’s digital world. Journalists must become technologically savvy to succeed or they’ll be left behind.
While a small town paper job may help a journalist become a veritable Swiss Army Knife, there are some downsides. Weekly papers do not have large staffs and can’t do everything in one week, she said. Townspeople tend to forget that from time to time.
“Sometimes it’s difficult in a small town because everyone knows who you are and sometimes they forget what you do and just start talking,” she said. “After they have completely spilled their guts they automatically get this look of fear and say ‘oh that was off the record, right?'”
Novak says that can be a difficult at times. “People stop seeing you as just another person and only see you as ‘that one who could put anything I say in the paper.'”
In the end, it comes down to taking responsibility for the things you do. In a small paper, things are read in a different light. People know those who the stories are about and know the details about the story in advance sometimes,” she said. “It can be stressful knowing that, unless you meticulously fact check, someone who you walk by on the street will get in your face to correct you. Friends who you have known for years may suddenly blow up in your face because you were just doing your job and reporting the facts.”
At the end of the day though, Novak says it is worth it. “I love that our readers trust that the stories in our paper are factual and they know they can always bring up suggestions or concerns with me. I also really enjoy that you can see all the hard work and late hours pay off when subscriptions increase or when someone stops you on the street to tell you how much they enjoy the paper “