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Archive for July 5th, 2008

Your personal/professional identity in a small town

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

I can’t remember the last time I went out shopping or to eat or to the park without recognizing someone from my beat or having someone recognize me. When you get large crowds together, it’s even more likely to occur.

How do TV reporters and celebrities do it? I never want to go out in anything that doesn’t look nice or sans make-up or with my hair looking a little rough. It’s not that I’m vain, it’s that, even when I’m not working, I’m perceived by those people I run into as a reporter at the newspaper. You can’t really separate your personal and professional identity in a small town.

A long-time resident once summed up Lafayette to me as, “The largest small town you’ll ever live in.” He was right, which is why I can’t run to the gas station without running into someone I know — and I’ve only been here a year and a half; imagine how those reporters and editors who’ve lived here 20+ years must feel. I also don’t know how people in truly small towns handle it. In Tippecanoe County, where Lafayette is the largest city and county seat, there are about 150,000 people. That’s a pretty good number and still I run into people who know me everywhere I go.

I worked on Saturday a few weeks ago, and one of my assignments was to cover the Taste of Tippecanoe event downtown. My editor wanted me to work with the photographer so our stories matched up, which is fine. I’m pretty sure the photo intern who was on that evening was annoyed that every 10 minutes — quite literally from us walking in the gate and even on our walk back to the office — someone stopped to say hello to me.

Earlier that same day, I was sent to cover the Soap Box Derby here. As I was standing on the sideline waiting out a rain delay, one of the parents came up to me to chat. He was a school board member in one of our neighboring county, which I also cover. (Incidentally, I ran into one of the parents I interviewed at the derby later that day at the Taste, where she of course recognized me and said hello!)

One of my assignments as the reporter yesterday on July 4 was to go cover the big celebration in our county. There’s a concert and then the open intramural fields where families scope out spots hours in advance. Well, during the half-hour I was walking through the crowd there, I was recognized as the J&C education reporter by two different people. One of them, I recognized as a teacher I’d interviewed. The other one was someone I’ve never met; he not only recognized me, but he also complimented me on a story I wrote a few weeks back. So that was nice.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d been sent to a town about 40 minutes away in another county to cover a community softball tournament. When I got there, they weren’t playing so I went up to the guy dressed as an umpire. With his sunglasses and uniform on, and the fact that I was 40 minutes from “home,” I didn’t immediately place him. But as soon as I said, “Excuse me,” he said, “You look like Meranda.” And then I said, yes, and recognized who he was. He’s an administrator in one of my school districts in this county.

On Monday, my mom was in town and we went to breakfast at a little restaurant downtown that I’d only been to once before. As we’re sitting there, in walks the principal of one of my elementary schools.

Last week, I was at Borders, where I ran into a middle school teacher I’ve interviewed a few times and a couple recent high school graduates I’ve also talked to on occasion.

The week before, some friends met up at BW3s after work on Friday to celebrate some birthdays. As I was walking from my car, someone shouted my name. It was a school board member dropping off his kid at a shop nearby.

I guess it goes back to the adage about being a reporter that just living in a community is an inherent conflict of interest. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all — and in fact, I actually believe a good local reporter should live in her community so she has a vested interest in holding its leaders accountable — but it’s the reality.

Part of me finds it pretty annoying when I am having a bad hair day, or just a bad day, and I don’t feel like smiling and being cordial or talking about work. I know the teachers and administrators probably feel the same way, so that gives me some solace.

But to be honest, part of me loves that so many people know me and recognize me for my work. And plus, who doesn’t like to be remembered? And I’m always proud when it’s a complete stranger, because it means I’ve never made the effort to connect with this person but my work has. That’s pretty awesome.

I don’t mind being seen as the “face” of the newspaper to the community, which is part of the job as reporter. And really for all those hyperlocal buzzwords people throw around, that’s what it boils down to. Connecting with your community means being recognized as a member of that community, not just when you need information but all the time. Those chance encounters often give me tips and ideas, and even when they don’t, they give me credibility and memorability for the next time I do need information.