Publisher and editor-in-chief says diverse skills help reporters
By Collin Spilinek
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Instead of attending college after his high school graduation, Darran Fowler spent three years working odd jobs at grain elevators and construction sites.
He eventually decided to become a journalist and enrolled in the College of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1987.
“That was always my dream,” Fowler said in a phone interview.
Since 2010, Fowler has been the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Hastings Tribune, serving Hastings, Nebraska. He’s worked at the publication since 1995.
The career should have been an obvious choice for Fowler, who spent his childhood at the Tribune. His father worked in the printing department for 40 years, operating the press.
“So, I worked part time at the sports department when I was in high school,” Fowler said. “I caught papers off the press and worked in the production circulation area part time.”
Fowler said that later in high school, some of his classmates were having difficulty in deciding what they wanted to do with their lives.
“I’m unique in that I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to work in a newspaper.”
After graduating from UNL in 1991, Fowler joined the staff of the Plainview News, a weekly newspaper based out of Plainview, Nebraska. It was here that Fowler said he got his first real training in the newspaper business.
“I was a jack of all trades,” Fowler said. “I wrote the stories, whether it was news or sports, I laid out the pages, I attended all the school board meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, sold advertising, took the pictures, did all of the negatives, all that stuff.”
Fowler stayed at the publication until 1995, when he returned to the Hastings Tribune to work as a regional editor. After taking the positions of city editor and managing editor, Fowler replaced Don Seaton as publisher, who had held the title since 1974.
An early riser, Fowler usually unlocks the building in the morning and locks it back up at night.
“When I come here, that’s when I plan and prepare for that day’s newspaper,” he said. “And I have a pretty good idea before I even get there what’s going to be in the paper, but then I go through and I check out as far as whether there’s been any developments locally or anything like that.”
Fowler also works on preparing the paper’s newsletter, which is sent out in email blasts. He also reads through the copy and lays out three pages of the paper, including the opinion page.
“And then it’s just making sure that, through the team of people here, that we’re putting things on the app, we’re getting things on the website,” Fowler said. “In a lot of cases, I’m doing that particularly during the odd hours in the evenings or weekends.”
Although he noted the cyclical routine schedule of the paper and the high amount of stress, Fowler said he loves getting to work with other people who share his passion for journalism.
“And no one’s getting rich at it, but it’s in our blood, and this is what we enjoy doing,” he said. “It’s just hard to explain, but I enjoy coming here to work. I find that fun.”
One of the more difficult aspects of Fowler’s position is talking to people in the community about what the paper is to them.
“There may be some perception out there that we’re dinosaurs and we’re dying,” Fowler said. “And I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. We’re actually, more or less, growing.”
In 2011, the paper had a circulation of 9,356 for Hastings, which had a population of 24,907 in 2010, and the surrounding area. Fowler said the internet has allowed the audience to expand rapidly in the past 15 years.
“We are reaching a bigger audience than we were 10 or 15 years ago,” Fowler said. “While they may not always be reading the newspaper, they’re reading it in some fashion, whether it be on their laptop, their desktop, their smartphone or the actual printed copy.”
The paper has tried to use the internet for its advantage for years. In the summer of 2016, Fowler and other members of the paper worked on a phone application for the newspaper. The app is available for both iOS and Android.
“We’re still kicking the tires around on that thing, and we got to do better at it, there’s no doubt about it,” Fowler said.
With different platforms of news available to the public, Fowler said the paper has to work together to decide which information is published online and what information is put into print. The relationship between print and online almost causes a mini-rivalry within the paper.
“Basically what my approach is, is the website and the newspaper don’t compete against each other, they complement each other,” Fowler said. “A lot of [the decision is] just being smart and what your instincts are.”
The internet has provided small newspapers the ability to break a story and give important or critical information to the public at any time of the day.
But with the rise of fake news on social media outlets such as Facebook, Fowler said he wanted the paper’s online presence to reflect the trust gained from the print version. Having a dedicated team of reporters do all the work themselves is one way to gain this trust.
“I guess that speaks volumes about the credibility of newspapers and their websites,” Fowler said. “We still practice the basic fundamentals of good journalism through solid writing and solid editing.”
Fowler also said it’s critical for newspapers, especially smaller ones, to hire people with a variety of skills, including photography, writing for different sections, editing and layout and being able to work with technology.
“That’s how it’s really changed, and as far as I’m concerned, at an operation like ours, a small daily newspaper, those people that have that kind of a skill set are very valuable,” Fowler said.
When it comes to editing skills, Fowler said it takes years of practice, but the more you read and write, the better you’ll be at editing. He also suggested reading stories over in the eyes of the average reader.
“If I have to go back and read a sentence or paragraph a second time, one, I either got distracted, which often times [may] be the case, or there’s something wrong with it that I had to go read it again to understand it,” Fowler said. “At that point, I’m the reader, and so I don’t want the reader to have the same experience.”
The Hastings Tribune has a role to serve in the community, and Fowler believes having these skills will help fill that role.
“And there’s no replacing just good, solid journalism,” Fowler said. “We’re not The New York Times or The Washington Post, but we cover things in Hastings and our surrounding area just as aggressively as they cover the national news.”